Kiki Smith is a German-born American painter and sculptor who is one of the most highly acclaimed artists of her generation. Her forty year career in figurative art has shown her working in mediums of sculpture, drawing, tapestry, and printmaking. She has been at the forefront of contemporary art since the 1980s when – after decades of gestural abstractions, color-field art, Pop art, minimalism, and conceptual art – she returned to the human body as subject for her art. In the following decades her life-size sculptures would present the human body as a frail, clinical specimen but also as a resilient spiritual vessel. Smith has taken a unique path within Feminist art by concentrating on the human figure in her visceral representations of men, women, and their body parts.
Kiki Smith is the daughter of minimalist architect and sculptor Tony Smith and Jane Lawrence Smith, an actor and opera singer. She grew up in an Irish Catholic family in suburban New Jersey in a large Victorian home where her father had lived, the son of a prosperous manufacturing family. As teens, she and her younger twin sisters spent evenings making tiny geometric models for him.
Her diverse education included a year and a half at the Hartford Art School in 1974, a year in trade school studying industrial baking, working as an electrical assistant, and three months’ training to become an emergency medical technician. This last training fueled her interest in the human body.
In 1976, Smith moved to New York City. Her early work was aligned with the collaborative art of the 1980s when she became part of Collaborative Projects, Inc. (Colab), an artists’ collective that wanted to make accessible art. Here she worked with printmaking for the collective’s “Times Square Show.”
After the death of her father in 1980, Smith began to produce work at a furious pace, culminating in her first solo show two years later at the Kitchen in 1982. Although she loved her father and his spare sculptures, his death at 68, after years of struggling with a blood condition, freed her.
After the death of her younger sister Beatrice in 1988 from AIDS, Smith investigated mortality. and the vulnerability of human existence in her art. Smith based her sculptures on the human body, representing it in ways that can be disturbing and unsettling. She became known for intimate explorations of the body’s skeleton, skin, and bodily fluids in a variety of forms ranging from paper to mirrored glass to cast bronze.
Smith’s 1988 sculpture “Untitled” is made of red-stained, tissue-thin paper showing the flayed, bloodied, crumbling skin of a man. His body is torn into three pieces that hang limply from a wall, hollow and lifeless. in 1989, she made “Tombs.” It is composed of 16 pieces of hand-mirrored glass that lean against the wall, supported by two narrow wooden shelves. The glass itself and its hand-mirroring speak of the traditional ‘vanitas’ theme, with a mirror suggesting the evanescence of reflected beauty as the viewers become part of the piece. She also examined the figure of the Virgin Mary. Her 1992 “Virgin Mary” is a wax representation of the female body but with skin missing in several places.
In the late 1990s, Smith shifted to animals and then in 2001 to the relationship between animals and people. Her 2001 ”Lying with a Wolf” is a series of ink and pencil works on paper with references to oral history, folk tales, literary works, and myths. The nude woman lying with a wolf can be identified in various narratives: Little Red Riding Hood; Saint Genevieve, the patron Saint of France, associated with Saint Francis of Assisi and the domestication of wolves; and a ‘She-Wolf’, the predatory side of womanhood found in cultural narratives. This work contains themes: the bonding of humans and animals; the natural world; and women and animals. Like the story of Saint Genevieve, Smith sees animals as companions and not as predators.
Smith has produced permanent outdoor sculptures at U.C. San Diego in 1998. She has done collaborative work with poets, authors, musicians, and dancers in performance art. In 2010, she collaborated with work done on the Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York’s lower East Side.
For decades, Smith has had a New York show every two years. While that rate has slowed, she still produces new pieces incessantly. She is among the most widely shown artists worldwide. She has had over 150 solo exhibitions at museums, galleries, and Biennials in New York, Florence, and Venice. In 2000, she was awarded the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture. In 2005, she had a full-scale museum survey at San Francisco MoMA, which traveled to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, the Whitney Museum in New York, and to La Collection Jumex, outside Mexico City. She teaches at Columbia and New York University, and her work is in the collections of every major international museum.