Kiki Smith is a German-born American painter and sculptor who is one of the most highly acclaimed artists of her generation. 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 in her life-size sculptures, Smith would present the human body as a frail, clinical specimen, but at the same time as a resilient spiritual vessel. Smith has taken a unique path within Feminist art by concentrating on the human figure in her visceral representation of men, women, and their body parts.
Kiki Smith is the daughter of minimalist sculptor Tony Smith and grew up in an Irish Catholic family in suburban New Jersey. Her diverse education included a year and a half at the Hartford Art School in 1974, a year in trade school studying industrial baking, 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 which 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 and the AIDS death of her sister in 1988, Smith investigated mortality. 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. Her 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.
Shortly after her sister’s death, Smith created “Tombs” in 1989. 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.
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, 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 of: 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.
Smith has had over 150 solo exhibitions at museums and galleries worldwide in Biennials in New York, Florence, and Venice. 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.