Born in 1954, a daughter of the abstract sculptor Tony Smith, she was raised in suburban New Jersey, went to Roman Catholic schools and didn’t consider art as a profession. As a child she wanted to be a nun.
Before and after moving to Manhattan in 1976 she worked as a cook, an electrician, a surveyor, an emergency medical technician and an artist’s assistant. Around the time of her father’s death in 1980 she picked up art herself in a serious way. She has not put it down for an instant.
She was largely self-taught and, obviously, fully self-aware. She paid attention to what others were doing, learning a lot from the work of artists like Eva Hesse, Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, Paul Thek, Hannah Wilke and Louise Bourgeois, as well as from her contemporaries in a fringy Lower East Side art world.
She sought technical instruction wherever she could find it and learned as she went. A collaborator and multitasker by temperament, she covered a lot of ground fast. That first gallery at the Whitney encompasses metal, plaster and glass sculpture, drawing, sewing and printmaking. She quickly added painting, photography, bookmaking and filmmaking to her repertory.
From the start her art was of a piece with her life, without being diaristic. The mid-’80s internal organs, and the full-body forms that followed, had sources in her childhood religion, with its cult of relics and fleshly mortification, and sensual saints like Angela de Foligno, who envisioned Jesus showing her his wounds and whispering, “Lella, these are all for you.”
The work was also the product of a specific social and political moment that saw the rise and spread of AIDS. One of Ms. Smith’s two sisters, Beatrice, died of the disease. So did many of her friends. And its trace, while rarely explicit, is omnipresent in the first two galleries of the show.A couple of days ago, my history instructor Art, told us a story about Kiki's dad, Tony. A deep friendship lived between Tony and Jackson Pollack. One night after midnight, Pollack was close to his end and feeling exceptionally low, even for him. He called his friend Tony. He murmered that he was thinking seriously of suicide. Tony asked Jack what most friends would, where his wife Lee was? Jack said "she's hiding," which was common I suppose for them. She was his wife. And she needed reprieve; shelter from the intensity of Jack. After several moments on the phone, Tony drove to Jack's place and found his friend out in the barn; his studio; lit by a candle. It is very much Jack's dark night, in all senses. He was beyond consolation for a long time; confined by the pressure the galleries were putting upon him; cajoling him into painting more comodities, with drugs and whatever he needed to keep himself under their thumb; churning out more and more and more.
He was done.
He was spent.
He had reached critical mass.
The part of the story i like best is the next part. Jack's despair was beyond reason; beyond words. He needed his friend to woo him back to life without words. Tony offered what good friends offer: action. He lit a cigarette and he poured bourbon and he sat down.
Once they were good and drunk, Tony rose again to his feet, but not to go. In the style of Jack himself, he took fists full of paint and hurled the paint violently through the blank canvas. With the paint came his friend's pain; Jack's anger; humilitation; self disgust; Jack's shame. Jack was too tired so Tony did it for him, and with raw abandon.
Eventually Jack was enraptured and for hours together they violently assalted the canvas; releasing the demons within. Finally after the spectacular war, they collapse onto the canvas in a heap and sleep it off. I'm sure the next morning wasn't pretty. But the fact is, for Jackson, a new morning came. The light of another day shone bright and (probably quite painfully) upon him.
The way Art recounted the story said to me that he knows something about keeping a friend company in the midst of a dark night.
I remember a night my dad stayed on the phone with me for a long time, between the hours of 3 and 5. I wasn't reasonable. I wasn't consolable. I was the weakest and most unlovely version of myself. I guarantee it wasn't his favorite memory. But there he was keeping vigil over his baby daughter, as parents do.
Anyway, I like this story of Kiki's dad. Reminds me of mine, I suppose.