Barbara T. Smith is a California-based multidisciplinary artist. She is known for her depiction of body parts as she engages the human body in ways that are humorous but also vulnerable. She explored technology using a Xerox machine to first make photographs of her daughter Katie and then to document aspects of her life by making images of her own body. She was forced to use the Xerox machine because the lithography workshop Gemini G.E.L. refused to make a lithograph for her.
Smith was a major player in the Southern California arts scene in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Her performance pieces examined domesticity and its representations, and her sculptural works were participatory or interactive art where people could walk through her giant sculptures.
Smith graduated from Pomona College in 1953. In 1965, after raising three children, she studied at Chouinard Art Institute. She received her M.F.A. from U.C. Irvine in 1971. Along with several fellow graduate students, including artists Chris Burden and Nancy Buchanan, she founded the experimental F-Space Gallery. Here she staged installations, such as her 1969 “Ritual Meal” where viewers wore surgical scrubs and ate a bizarre meal of weirdly mixed foods. A beating heart and a picture of the cosmos were projected in the space. This work along with her 1971 “Celebration of the Holy Squash,” which made a religious relic out of leftover food, and her 1973 “Feed Me,” where the audience could feed her with food, wine, marijuana, or sexual pleasure, have become iconic in the history of performance art.
A later installation “Field Piece” was made with designers and engineers. It consisted of some 180 translucent resin shafts – each nine-and-a-half-feet tall – that resembled blades of grass. When people wandered through the fiberglass grass, the blades would turn various shades of translucent colors – orange, pink, yellow, and violet – that glowed from an internal light source. Each column had a speaker, which emitted a vibrating drone sound. At the opening event, the people who participated were naked.
Smith’s 1981 “Birthdaze” was a performance piece that celebrated her 50th birthday. She invited male artists to collaborate by performing as alter egos. Each of the men had played a part in her artistic and personal life. This work included a tantric ritual and a motorcycle.
Her “St. Marten: Paragraph” was a 1990 plywood wall hanging, which featured shells found on a Caribbean beach. The shell configurations stood in for words or phrases, forming a language that played with meaning.
Smith has taught art history, performance art, sculpture and painting at UC Irvine, UCLA, San Francisco Art Institute, and other institutions. In 2005, there was a retrospective of her work at Pomona College Museum of Art, which later traveled to the Kennedy Museum of Art at Ohio University. In 2014, Smith was a recipient of an artist residency at the Civitella Ranieri Visual Arts Fellowship in Umbria, Italy. In the same year her archive was acquired by the Getty Research Institute.
Smith’s 2016 “Signifier 2” showed the artist’s hands and also a scan of one of her early Xeroxed images when she scanned fragments of her own body. The images were made into large-scale inkjet prints, ghostly and elegant, and were shown recently at Los Angeles’s Cirrus Gallery.
Her work has been exhibited in many museums including the Hammer Museum, the Getty Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work can be seen at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts in an exhibition, “how we are in time and space: Nancy Buchanan, Marcia Hafif, and Barbara T. Smith.” Her work is in the permanent collections of these museums as well as the Orange County Museum of Art, Pomona College Museum of Art, and Frac des Pays de la Loire in France.