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Kiki Smith

American Artist

Kiki Smith Photo
Movement: Feminist Art

Born: January 18, 1954 - Nuremberg, Germany

"My suffering is that I see that there are these really great forms. They're holy in a way, like they have this really incredible power about them. And all I can do is recognize it."

Summary of Kiki Smith

Kiki Smith is one of the most widely recognized people in the art world today, and one of the most prolific artists of her generation. Coming of age during the waning days of performance art in the late 1970s, Smith and others of her era, such as Barbara Kruger, Kara Walker, and Cindy Sherman, comprised the end of the second wave of Feminist art and found new ways to explore the social, cultural, and political roles of women. Smith was fascinated by figurative art and became known for her visceral, often disturbing artworks that depict the human body in detail, focusing on themes of women from mythology and folklore, or that reference her Catholic upbringing. Her unique vision, breadth of experience, and prolific output, which includes books, painting, sculpture, prints, and collaborations with other artists, cements her position as one of our most important voices of contemporary Feminist art.

Key Ideas

Surprisingly, Smith's art emerged from her upbringing within the spheres of Minimalism and abstract art. Abstraction was such an innate part of her world, it was "like air, completely natural...," and thus it did not hold the attraction for her as that presented by the novelty of representational art. In many ways the course of her development was diametrical to that of a great many artists, as early inventors of abstract art began as figurative artists who arrived at abstraction through efforts to distill and simplify their subject matter.
Smith forged a unique path within Feminist art, concentrating on the human figure when abstraction and Performance art were more popular. Early on she made her creative statements primarily through visceral representations of men and women, and individual body parts, depicting in graphic detail the internally toxic effects of illness, long-held guilt, shame, or humiliation on the human body. In this way she brought further awareness to the AIDS crisis, while simultaneously dealing with the loss of her sister and many friends to the disease.
The wolf in Smith's art is as detailed and naturalistic as her human figures, but it also symbolizes the wild woman, or 'she-wolf'. Found in many feminist and cultural narratives, she-wolves are women who act instinctively, according to their intuition. By depicting women and wolves together Smith represents the idea of 'Embracing one's Inner Wolf' - the self-knowledge and self-acceptance gained from deep personal introspection. Thus, her artworks may be understood on a multiplicity of levels - as highly detailed naturalistic figures, exploration of overlapping figures from different mythologies/religions, and as feminist dialogue inspiring self-acceptance.
Other works by Smith depict woman as feral, responding to her most basic animal nature. In cultural and narrative traditions such figure types operated outside of societal boundaries and were often viewed by others with suspicion, even fear. In Jewish tradition, Lilith, the first wife of Adam shunned the world of male dominance to reside within the demon realm. The object of the story was to characterize this woman living on the margins of society as uncivilized, without male guidance, and therefore dangerous - even demonic. One sees, from such traditions their influence on cultural models, hence, the presence within many medieval fairytales of the old hermit woman/witch who lived in the forest.
Kiki Smith Photo

Kiki Smith was born in 1954 to American parents living in Nuremberg, Germany. Her father was minimalist sculptor Tony Smith and her mother was Jane Lawrence, an American actress and opera singer working in Germany at the time Kiki was born. Her artistic lineage also claims her grandfather, who was an altar-carver. When Smith was still an infant her family moved back to the United States to live in her father's childhood home in South Orange, New Jersey. Family friends who visited the house included Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Tennessee Williams, and Mark Rothko. Art, especially contemporary art was present at every stage of Smith's life; she often helped her father make paper models for his sculptures in their living room, and in his studio, after school. Her younger twin sisters, Seton and Beatrice (Bebe), also followed creative paths. Seton is an artist, most noted for her cibachrome (now known as 'Ilfochrome') photography, and Bebe was an actress. They were a tight-knit family and Smith remains close with Seton today.

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