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Interview with Barbara T. Smith

Californian artist Barbara T. Smith (b. 1931) is something of a performance art legend. It was in the 1960s that she experienced her artistic awakening: married and housebound, but determined to utilise her liberal arts education, she leased a copy machine and began a series of Xerox works. Drawing on the everyday, domestic material available to her, she photocopied food wrappers, images of her children and even her own body, binding the images together as books. Later, she volunteered at the Pasadena Art Museum in California, where she met experimental performance artists like Allan Kaprow, and began to create her own ‘live’ works.

 

In 1971, while studying again at University of California, she co-established the artist-run gallery, F Space, along with Chris Burden and Nancy Buchanan. It was here that she performed her pivotal live piece, Nude Frieze (1972), in which fellow students stripped naked and were taped to the gallery walls. Smith later exhibited at Womanhouse – an experimental art space established by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, founders of the CalArts Feminist Art Program – and created numerous exhibitions and performances around the greater Los Angeles area.

 

Four decades later, Smith continues to work across several media, from painting and works on paper to installations and performance. Her pieces are intensely personal. In recent years, Smith’s practice has been reappraised in a number of important exhibitions including Connie Butler’s survey of feminist art practice: ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’ (2008) at MoMA PS1, New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and more recently in Getty’s statewide initiative, ‘Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980’ (2011). There is growing interest in Smith’s work and legacy among institutions in Europe and a number of her Xerox books will appear in a group exhibition at Raven Row gallery, London, next year.

 

When I first met Smith, she had just celebrated her eighty-fifth birthday with an old friend, the performance artist Paul McCarthy. McCarthy’s daughter Mara runs The Box, a commercial gallery in downtown LA known for championing the work of an older generation of artists, representing Smith, Judith Bernstein and Simone Forti, among others. We ate sausages with Smith’s gallerists at the hip Wurstküche restaurant nearby. Smith then spent several hours talking through her paintings, drawings and Xerox works, all held at the gallery in preparation for her recent solo exhibition‘Words, Sentences & Signs’. I met Smith again at her home in Pasadena one sunny evening in August. We listened to the parrots squawking from the neighbour’s trees and chatted about her journey as an artist and feminist over a large steak salad.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Did you always want to be an artist?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— I always knew. When I was in grammar school, I would make drawings and would get some attention for them and I began to think, ‘Oh, I can be an artist.’ It just went from there. By the time I went to college I was a studio art major at Pomona College.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Was that a formative time for you?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— Well, I was at Pomona under a tremendous amount of duress. My family sent me there to separate me from a boyfriend that they didn’t approve of. It was a blow, because my father stepped in and made my choice of a mate conditioned to him. I was traumatised. So, my work at that time, it was struggling.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— What were you making back then?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— What I called ‘live paintings’. My technique was influenced by Abstract Expressionism and Cubism. I didn’t know what I was going to do after college so I thought, well I want to get married and have children so…

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Those were the choices?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— Kind of. I tried to see if I could go to graduate school but my parents couldn’t even imagine it. Then, in the junior year of my undergraduate degree, I got married, and I was pregnant when I graduated. My husband had to go into the military, so we went to Columbus, Georgia. The Korean War was just coming to an end then. We ended up staying there for two years. I looked after our baby and he was off being a soldier. Finally I realised, ‘I’m an artist, I was an art major, I’ll paint!’ I got some equipment and I told him that I was going to start painting. He thought I was just doing this as a hobby, but I was deeply serious. So I made a few stumbling paintings there. Then we came back to Los Angeles and had another baby.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Were you still making work when you came back to Los Angeles?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— Not seriously, because I had begun to realise that something was terribly wrong. I felt I was in somebody else’s play and nothing seemed to make sense to me. I went to a therapist on my own in 1958; it was the best thing I ever did. A lot of therapists’ clients were women who were isolated, out in suburbia, the first generation of women who’d been to college, who had no one to talk to, who were only talking to babies. The husband comes home, I’m frantic, the husband is tired. It was the preliminary crisis that set off the feminist movement. A lot of therapists were trying to teach women to adapt but mine didn’t have that agenda at all. He had me reading Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir and the most amazing writers, theologians, theorists, spiritual people. It was an incredible interaction.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Was that the beginning of an awakening for you?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— Yeah around 1960-1963 I had a breakthrough. My entire consciousness had changed. That’s when I had authentic art coming into my head in overwhelming amounts. It was a gift. It’s not as if I could ignore it and I realised all the things I was thinking were very radical.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Were you working in isolation at that time or were you reading these things and looking to other artists?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— Well, I started to volunteer at the Pasadena Art Museum, which was the most avant-garde museum in the country. For the first time in eight years I was meeting other artists, it was great. The first pop art show in the United States took place there (Editor’s note: ‘New Painting of Common Objects’, curated by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1962). They put on many shows by experimental artists from California and New York and they also had the big Duchamp retrospective, so it was very exciting. I was working in the print collection and I also helped them put together their docent programme for the first time.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

—  At this point were you starting to hear about new movements in art, like performance?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— There was no such thing as performance. I was one of the first performance artists in L.A. At all.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— You never saw anyone else doing that? There were happenings with Allan Kaprow…

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— Allan Kaprow I knew, he stayed at my house. My marriage was falling apart, I heard he was coming to the museum and I had this huge empty house, so I offered to have him stay at our house. He saw all the work I’d done on the Xerox machine and was blown away by it. He took some to New York to try to tell people about it.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Did the Xerox work begin after your therapy?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— Yes, in 1966 or something. I had all these ideas that were actions and I didn’t know what they were. Once we got divorced, I had also decided to build the Field Piece. And I knew that with the Field Piece I was essentially putting myself in what amounted to an industrial situation, where I’m turning out a product that’s going to take forever. I didn’t want to bury myself like that, so I heard about a workshop for artists that was going to be taught by Alex Hay, who’s a dancer from New York. I went to the workshop once a week. This is when in New York they did ‘9 Evenings’. It was what they would call theatre pieces – events that were not happenings and were not dance. This was ’68. It became a place where I could realise these other ideas that were in my head. Alex stayed at Stanley Grinstein’s house (Editor’s note: Grinstein was an important art collector and patron in 1960s and 1970s Los Angeles) and they all thought that the work we were doing was innovative enough to have a concert.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Did you feel confident about what you were doing, or were you nervous that it was too experimental?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— It was just great fun. We did the concert and I did four performances in one evening. Plus, I was involved in other people’s works. So, I had always wanted to get a master’s degree and around that time I got accepted into a programme. I lived for a while in an old hotel in Venice, and then I found a studio in Orange County, put all my stuff there and went to Europe for the summer. When I came back I started graduate school at UC Irvine.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Did you see anything inspiring in Europe?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— Well, I met R. B. Kitaj at his place. There were five stairways in the building and I wanted to start at the top of the stairs, and toss many balls of different sizes and shapes, down the stairs. I ended up doing that, later, as a small piece, in Laguna Beach here in California. It was called Trajectory (1972).

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— I noticed from your diaries in the Getty that you travelled a bit and seemed quite connected with galleries and people. Did you learn about these different places through your social network? Were your friends talking about those galleries and artists?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— Yes, Avalanche magazine was really important for performance art. And Artforum, that I had been reading forever.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Do you see a relationship between your work and the social and political contexts of the 1960s, like feminism and the 1960s civil rights movement? Did that feed into your practice directly?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— We were all simultaneously waking up as feminists. Judy Chicago is probably the most prescient, she was more aware. There were protests that I participated in at the County Museum and there were groups that got together, thinking about what to do. Down at Irvine, they started consciousness raising groups. I’d known Judy for a while and we’d collaborated on an event here in Pasadena between 1968-1969. I definitely saw myself as a person who was taking a stance for women. My work was on behalf of women and I was against the Cartesian split, the body/mind split. It was more about integrating the entire being.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Did you have a relationship with the Woman’s Building, or Womanhouse?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— Oh yeah, but not with Womanhouse because that was affiliated with CalArts as part of their women’s programme and I was at Irvine. There was also Womanspace, that started on Venice Boulevard in 1973. I did a performance at that very first Womanspace show. The Woman’s Building opened later that year near MacArthur Park and I was part of a co-operative gallery there called Grandview I and II, all women. I shared a membership with Nancy Buchanan, so I did performances there too.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— I was interested in F Space, which you set up with Nancy and Chris Burden –

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— And many others actually.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Was it a deliberate way of working, in alternative art spaces?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— There were no alternative art spaces at all. They didn’t exist. We did that because we couldn’t do what we wanted to do in school, because they wouldn’t let us hang naked bodies on the wall, or shoot ourselves (referring to Chris Burden’s Shoot performance). It was for artistic freedom that we got this place.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— How long did F-Space last for?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— The Newport Harbor Art Museum paid for one more summer after we graduated so we could be in a show in the museum in the fall. By then it was called performance art. This was just when the language was forming. In Europe it was called Actionism or Body Art. Here it had more to do with a high performance test engine, we’re testing ourselves to see how we can perform under stress. In the run-up to the show, the director of the museum offered to pay our rent. But the idea was he would only show static work in the museum and he would sponsor performances at F Space. It was a cop out, but finally we said yes.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— So the museum recognised that what you were doing was something important and different, but they were too afraid to completely embrace it?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— It was probably better because the work had more meaning outside of the museum.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— You’ve worked a lot in unconventional sites and spaces…

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— We were just following our ideas, but acceptance of the work was taming it, commodifying it and commercialising it.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— But your work never became that commercial?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— The problem performance artists had was that they couldn’t survive. I was used to having an idea and doing it. The spaces in New York became a lot more structured. So if I said I wanted to do a performance they said, ‘Make a proposal.’ Or, ‘We’re all booked up through this year, but maybe next year.’ Well the whole idea was gone as far as I was concerned, it was much more about immediacy for me.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Did you ever recapture those ideas? The art world has become more institutionalised.

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— You can be spontaneous any time you want, it’s just not supported. I’ve got a studio here in Pasadena and that’s when I really got involved in the Woman’s Building. And then moved downtown. That’s when High Performance magazine started. They commissioned a few of us to write books about our work in 1978. But instead of making images with text under them, I was more interested in writing about the process. It was only a few years ago that I finished it.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Did you bring it up to date?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— No, it’s only up to 1981. I started it in downtown L.A. Then I moved out, lived in Altadena for a couple of years, ostensibly working on the book at Sue Dakin’s property. She became the publisher of High Performance and she gave me a place to stay so I could work on this book, then she moved to Malibu and I ended up staying there. Finally I got a place of my own in ’83 in downtown Culver City. Then I got my house in Venice and I was there for twenty-seven years. It was big enough that I could rent rooms and that’s how I survived.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Throughout your career, you’ve held teaching jobs, and have written. That’s how you supported your performance. Were you ever tempted to make something you could sell?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— No, because I didn’t know how! When I was married we collected some art. So three different times I’ve sold valuable pieces to keep myself going. When I lost a teaching job, it wasn’t that I was fired – the job just ended. I’d get unemployment money and then I got some grants.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— You mentioned the Xerox works earlier, how did they first begin?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— I had this idea for a great lithograph, so I went to this lithography workshop called Gemini and said, I’d like to make a lithograph at your place and they sort of smiled indulgently, ‘Well we don’t usually have someone work here unless they have a gallery.’ I realised what was going on and I was just furious. I thought, well, lithography isn’t a print medium of our time, it’s from the nineteenth century, it’s already passé. So, what’s the print-making medium of our time and I thought, it’s business machines. I wanted something that was an entirely new technology and the only one at the time was Xerox. The actual toner is plastic, the image is this powdery substance until it runs through a sintering machine that melts the plastic and out it comes. So I leased one and put it in my dining room. I had the idea of illustrating my poetry, but I quickly found out it was magic. It could immediately do anything I wanted, and I just could not stop.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— It seems like quite a radical thing to do, if you had only been making paintings and drawings up to then, to adopt a brand new technology.

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— I had no attachment to any kind of medium, that was my whole breakthrough, there is no defined limit for what can be made art. I had completely shattered the art boundaries. Even when I was in college, I was talking to my painting teacher one day and he said, ‘You can learn any technology you want, but technology isn’t what will make you a great artist. If you want to really be an artist, nothing in the world will stop you.’ And I said, ‘Right on’. I understood. So I was liberated way back.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— So when you were in college, you were making performances like Nude Frieze?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— Yeah, I was also building the Field Piece, because that took four and a half years, that was huge. It wasn’t just that, it was the whole performance endeavour, the centre of my work became involved with action, the body, ephemeral moments in time. It had nothing to do with making objects to sell. Other artists I’d met were making series of paintings, they told me I’ve got to choose one thing and just do that, finish every permutation of an idea, then go to the next thing. I figured, I was fifteen years older than everybody and I didn’t have time! Furthermore, I had too many ideas and I just didn’t want to get caught in that. Ultimately when I went down to Irvine, I was doing these huge environmental sculpture and performances, and neither one of them fit the gallery scene at all. They didn’t even think it was art. I didn’t do it on purpose but I began to realise I had walked out of the only art scene I’d known. And I was known there as an interesting art maven.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— How do you feel about the way that people are talking about your work and contextualising it over the last ten, or twenty years?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— I never had great expectations. Nobody could talk about it because there was no language for it. It took a couple of generations for art historians to get a grip on what was happening. At first we were very wary of people talking about it, then we realised the writers would bring to bear other aspects that would resonate, so it broadened my understanding of my own work, it framed it, which was very nice.

 

Different artists – Paul McCarthy and Vito Acconci, Chris Burden and Nancy Buchanan – stopped doing performances and started doing installations or video work. I had that same choice. I know for each of us it was too much. I was on the verge of a complete burnout. It’s not like with painting, these are things you have to wrench from your own psyche. It’s just like ripping yourself apart. So, in my case, I thought I’ve got to see if there’s a way I can continue to make body art, but from a different perspective. That’s how I got involved with Buddhism, but the price is high because the art world loves the artist to be crazy, stressed out, whatever. Once you break that imperative, the work comes from a completely different place, which is peaceful and calm. So the work changes.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— How do you feel about someone else recreating your performance?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— We’ve tried a couple and I don’t think they’re very successful.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— How do you want the work to live on?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— I don’t know, through people like you? There’s a lot of video material. I guess the book, too, that will go up to 1981.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— So documentation is more appropriate for your work than re-enactment?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— Yes, because it’s not the same at all. The performances are time-bound.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— I’ve spent a lot of time going through your papers at the Getty. It seems like your life is so closely connected to the social conditions of the time you were living through, the lack of choice for women, the difficulty of forging your own path. Do you feel your story is representative in some way?

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— I think it is, but all over this country there were women like me dealing with the same issues. How they worked it out for each of them would be different. There was the isolation and we’d all been ignited by education and learning. I’m quite sure that there are many women like me who tried to step out of the confines of their lives. Many of them did it and stayed in their marriages and they were lucky, because I couldn’t have done the work I did and still be married. Some who had been more educated about the women’s movement might have had more awareness of themselves in that kind of a context. But I only vaguely knew about it, my parents never talked about it, they weren’t feminists. They weren’t political even, they just took life for granted, which is what a lot of middle class people did.

 

There was that show at Irvine during the Pacific Standard Time which was called ‘The Radicalisation of a 1950s Housewife’ and that’s exactly it. Funny to have hindsight, but I didn’ t know I was being radicalised. I am a feminist but I’m not a very political person, as in a political activist.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— But you’ve lived a radical life.

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— Yeah! I’m a liberal, political person, but that’s not the entirety of where I’m coming from. I think about this a lot – am I copping out? But if I did that, I couldn’ t do this other work that I do, whatever this is – I hate the language, because it’s seemingly trite – but it is a spiritual path. When you use that language there’s the expectation that you’re going to be especially amazing, but I’m not, I’m just this ordinary person who’s lived this journey.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— It’s very tempting to look at your work in parallel to your life and you’re one of those artists where you can’t extricate the two.

A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— Allan Kaprow’s goal was to have an art-life merge – and he didn’t manage to do it. For his archive, he’d never give any of his personal letters, nothing. My thing is, I always think artists are coming from their life.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— A lot of women artists are talked about in terms of their lives and that biographical reading puts women into a box. But in your case, you’d be missing so much
A

BARBARA T. SMITH

— Yes, because in my case it’s the opposite. We had no other place to come from, there’s no other world to base our work on. So we naturally came from issues that had to do with children and so on. There’s no possibility of hiding anything anymore, because the nature of the work makes it impossible. In a therapy session, everyone can be self-revealing, but nothing leaves the room, it’s totally private. Well it’s the total opposite with performance, it’s all out there. You can’t deny it. Whatever you put out you have to stand by forever.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Ciara Moloney is a curator and writer based in Los Angeles. She is the former Curator of Exhibitions and Projects at Modern Art Oxford where she curated exhibitions by Barbara Kruger, Josh Kline, Lynn Hershman Leeson and Christian Boltanski, among many others. Moloney has edited catalogues on artists Kiki Kogelnik (2015) and Barbara Kruger (2014), and is a regular contributor to publications including ArtReview, Apollo, Art in America, Art Papers, the Brooklyn Rail and Flash Art.



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