Kiki Smith (born January 18, 1954, in Nuremberg, Germany) is an American artist classified as a feminist artist, a movement with beginnings in the 20th century. Her Body Art is imbued with political significance, undermining the traditional erotic representations of women by male artists, and often exposes the inner biological systems of females as a metaphor for hidden social issues. Her work also often includes the themes of birth and regeneration, as well as sustenance, and frequently has Catholic allusions. Smith has also been active in debate over controversies such as AIDS, gender, race, and battered women.
In the face of an era (now more than 25 years in duration) dominated by appropriation over invention and innovation, what are we to make of the career of Kiki Smith? Her work is the epitome of innovation, invention and unique personal vision. While many artists, especially sculptors and installation artists, are steadfast members of a “slacker” generation, Kiki, 52, embraces craft, the dreaded C word of the art world. In myriad materials such as glass, fiber and beads (some associated more with amateurs and craft-show practitioners than with professional artists), she has embraced a dizzyingly diverse vocabulary of the demoted, debased and despised—and she makes you like it. All this she does while putting her unique and personal stamp on everything—thrilling audiences from the most sophisticated art-world insiders to the casual gallery goer. She is one of our greatest artists.
As children, Kiki and her twin sisters often sat at the feet of their father, minimalist sculptor Tony Smith, fashioning small cardboard models for his giant iconic sculptures. She also often mass-produced small modular units from cardboard, which would be used to incrementally build his larger more complicated pieces. It is tempting to assume that her penchant for keeping her hands busy with repetitive activities stems from her association with her father. It seems to me, however, that it could also derive from the women in her life. She has a real connectedness, in my opinion, to what used to be called women’s work—quilting, crocheting, knitting—activities in which small units go together to make bigger pieces. This is an interest I share with her. I recently had the privilege of exhibiting next to her at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It was thrilling to see so much of her work in one place. Always diverse, it was by turns magical, quirky, sexy, humorous, poignant, scatological and mesmerizing. Her work informed mine, and mine benefited by its association with hers. It helps to hang next to a great artist.