I showed up at Kiki Smith’s East Village house this past May with a case of untreated strep throat. In preparation, I googled “How is strep communicated.” I thought I should cancel our meeting, but then I thought I shouldn’t. If any artist could handle a misbehaving and even slightly disgusting body, Smith could. Her work is voraciously wide-ranging across obsessions, and is thus hard to encapsulate with a quick swipe. But her early pieces, in particular the sculptures she made in the ’80s and ’90s, have perhaps forever associated her with the phrase the female body. They were considered “feminist” (or activist, as she also engaged with the AIDS crisis) and sometimes inspired furors for their graphic depictions of bodily functions and bodies in decline. What is provocative about Smith’s work, however, cannot be reduced to anatomical shock value. What’s truly shocking is the discomfiting emotional rawness evinced in her art, as if the most trenchant human fears have been revealed via her “graphic” portrayals of, for example, viscera or defecation.
And yet, Smith’s pieces are also spooky-dreamy, with a strong foothold in the folkloric realm. Her mind chases an idea across different materials and mediums. For example, the figure of Saint Geneviève was a fixation of hers for a while; she repeatedly captured the pious figure, often posed with animals, in drawings and sculptures. In fact, the use of animals in this series led the German-born, New Jersey-raised artist more deeply into nature as a subject. What’s interesting about Smith’s mind-—as much as we can know about it through what it creates—is how it moves forward through compulsions. There’s a propulsive quality to her curiosity; even when it revisits tropes or images or her own personal “vocabulary,” the impulse is part of a quick-shooting trajectory. She’s guided less by ideas and intellect, more by intuition and attentiveness. Of her recent work, she said, “I’m drawing pictures of owls and trees and stuff.” This summer, a series of previous ink and collage drawings and glass-and-steel star sculptures are being shown at the Venice Biennale, and this month a selection of her prints, drawings, and sculptures is being exhibited at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art.
Smith’s house has a bright red door. Her vibe is good snow witch. During our interview, I did not touch anything in her home. I did not use her bathroom. I brought my own thermos and mug. I sat at a safe distance.
KIKI SMITH: I’m not much of a talker.
HEIDI JULAVITS: How can you not talk to me? Look at me. I’m just the sickest, saddest person.
SMITH: I’m going to get honey and propolis immediately.
JULAVITS: Do you have ways that your body regularly breaks down on you?
SMITH: No, never. Actually, Mercury has been out of retrograde since the third.
JULAVITS: Have you had a retrograde time?
SMITH: Not personally, but everyone around me has had a very difficult time. It’s like one disaster after another. So I recommend propolis and honey.
JULAVITS: But we’re post-retrograde now. So I think we can risk disaster and just dive in. There aren’t many artists about whom I can say I remember the first time that I saw their work. But you are one of those artists. The first piece of yours I ever saw was Tale [a sculpture depicting a female figure on all fours trailing a line of excrement]. I think this was the very early ’90s.
SMITH: I think I made that in ’92. I showed it at Fawbush Gallery [in SoHo, co-run by Joe Fawbush, who died from AIDS in 1995].
JULAVITS: I looked up Tale online yesterday. I was sort of shocked by how affected I still am by it. The shame of the body. Also my shame at witnessing shame.
SMITH: I had a sister who died from AIDS. I had many friends who died from AIDS, and it was a time when the politics around AIDS, around prison, around women’s reproductive rights … Well, there were many social constraints on the body. That show was more about how one’s self negotiates those constraints. Or how internally one’s self thwarts one’s own existence. I thought of it in a very literal way. We hold on to our shit and the accumulative garbage of our own consciousness and experiences, rather than just letting it go and have it stop interfering with our lives. The whole group of work was about embracing the shame of the out-of-control body. All of it was about self-acceptance and humility.
JULAVITS: Did it work?
SMITH: Yeah, my life changed. I always see my work as healing in some way—to me, at least. But also, when I see that piece now, sometimes I just feel embarrassed, like, “Ew, why did you make that?” [laughs]
JULAVITS: “Ew” is maybe the right word. So much of the early controversy around Tale seemed to center on issues of tastefulness. A female figure copiously shitting on all fours was beyond the bounds.
SMITH: Society is really afraid of the body. I’m part of that. I have problems about bodies, probably more than most people. In illness, people’s bodies just become completely part of the public realm.
JULAVITS: Like right now, my publicly ill body.
SMITH: Yeah. Oozing out all over my house.
JULAVITS: How has your feminism or activism evolved? Are there any firm beliefs you used to have that you’ve reconsidered or updated because the world seems different now?
SMITH: No, but my work isn’t didactic. It’s not like I’m trying to say, “This is how the world should be.” I’m trying to synthesize my experience.
JULAVITS: I was thinking of the recent conversations inspired by Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in the Whitney Biennial. What’s your response to issues of appropriation or the act of projecting one’s own experience onto someone else?
SMITH: One of the reasons I stopped making figurative work at a certain point was that I was casting people’s bodies, like my assistants’ bodies or just some person to whom I was relatively close in age. I didn’t want to use my body because I had been overweight my whole life. I didn’t want them to look at me. So I always just tried to find a body. I used women’s bodies, but one that wasn’t too sexed-up or too sexless.
JULAVITS: A neutral female body.
SMITH: A neutral female body. But then at a certain point I was in my 40s and my assistants were in their 20s, and I just thought, “Oh, that’s not a body that I relate to anymore.”
JULAVITS: But you did have an experience of it at one time.
SMITH: Yeah, but by the time I was 40, I thought, “I don’t want to make bodies anymore.” I stopped casting bodies that were young because it just didn’t feel real to me anymore, and then I kind of stopped doing figures for a long time. But then I went back and started drawing people again. Most of my friends would say I’m not allowed to draw them because I would always add on about 20 years. I would draw every wrinkle.
JULAVITS: Don’t they want to see the future of their face?
SMITH: That’s what I say. “It’ll be you in the future.”
JULAVITS: It’s good to prepare. How did you support yourself in the early years of your career, like the late ’70s and early ’80s? What jobs allowed you to make art?
SMITH: I was an electrician’s assistant. I worked as a cook in a Midtown bar called Tin Pan Alley. I worked in demolition, like demolition for lofts. I asked my mother for 20 dollars every time I saw her for years. I studied to be an industrial baker.
JULAVITS: Did you have a backup plan?
SMITH: I still don’t have a plan. I say to young people that the second they get jobs they should start making retirement funds because I didn’t think about anything like that until I was way into my 30s. But even if you put a dime away a week, it works to your advantage in the long run.
JULAVITS: Or if you put away that 20 dollars your mom gave you every week.
SMITH: No, that doesn’t count because you have to earn it. It has to be earned income. One of the things I really love about being an artist is that you’re in a free fall your whole life and making art teaches you to trust yourself and to trust your experience and be able to think on your feet. So I didn’t have any plan at all. I came from an art family so the stakes were very low.
JULAVITS: Did you feel unoriginal?
SMITH: Yeah, completely. I came to New York in 1976. I was 22. And you could live very modestly. I paid, like, 50 dollars a month. And then I lived on Ludlow Street, where I paid nothing for the first two years because the building was completely destroyed inside. For the most part, my living expenses were very low, which is clearly very different than now. I would work at Tin Pan Alley, and then I would go to New York Central the next day and spend most of the money on paper and come home and do something and then go back to work and get some more money for paper.
JULAVITS: You were a part of the ’70s-’80s art collective Colab, known for its politically and socially engaged grassroots collaborations. When you left, you said it had become institutionalized. What is the key difference to you between a collective and an institution? Are institutions bad for artists?
SMITH: I was really peripheral to Colab because everybody else had been in it for much longer. The collective did suitcase shows. Everything had to fit in a suitcase and somebody would come and take the suitcase to a different city and make a show in some alternative space, or they would send pictures back and forth to people in other cities. Or like with the “Times Square Show” in 1980, we rented a building, filled it up with art for a month or two, and then it was over. It was just a hit-and-run kind of thing, but at a certain point, it started feeling to me like a shtick.
JULAVITS: Is the suitcase an example of a shtick?
SMITH: That was really genuine to begin with. But if you start doing that ten times, it’s not as interesting to me, even though it could be interesting to people who didn’t have that experience. Certain experiences I really like doing over and over again. I love repetitive motion. I love sitting and scratching on things. I could scratch on things for the next 20 years. But other things, like forms, they’re just not that interesting to do over and over again. To me, what you learn feels limited.
JULAVITS: Because the form becomes an obligation rather than a space for discovery.
SMITH: It’s nice if you feel like you’re walking in the forest and you don’t know what’s going to happen or where you’re going to go. Sometimes I don’t know what to do for long periods of time because I feel like, “Oh, I got sort of competent at something.” I like fighting with things; I like the struggle of it. I like that I have to work hard because it occupies lots of time and then I don’t have to think about what to do with myself. But sometimes I’ve gotten to the point where I think, “Oh, now you could make a hundred of something that would all be sort of competent,” and then you have to stop because it’s not genuine. Or often I’ll think, “I have a really good idea. This is going to be simple. I’m going to bang this out and it’s going to be good.’ And the second that I think that, it’s always a complete disaster.
JULAVITS: How do you rectify a disaster that originally seemed so simple? Because you’re basically describing a project I’m working on right now.
SMITH: You have to let it reveal where you are really connected to it. You have to find what you need, what comes out of your personal necessity because that’s the only thing I trust, people’s personal necessity.
JULAVITS: I went to see Sophie Calle in Green-Wood Cemetery this weekend. People told her their secrets, and she wrote them down on pieces of paper and they were put into a grave. Truthfully, I got there late and didn’t get to tell her anything. But I ran into a friend of mine, and we started to talk about this other Calle-like artist, and she said this really interesting thing: “Her work makes me think that, had we been friends in our 20s, she would have betrayed me.” This question started to obsess me—was I ever betrayed, or did I ever betray anyone? So I’m asking that question of you. I guess this question involves ambition and how it can sometimes get ugly.
SMITH: Lots of times I wouldn’t talk about things that were happening to me because I felt like it separated me from my friends, and I didn’t want to be separated from them, so I just didn’t talk about it. And then someone really criticized me once because they said, “We want to share in your success.” I just don’t talk about stuff that much. But a lot of the time as an artist, you go all over the world and you’re with people who are very nice, but they’re not people who you know intimately at all, so it’s slightly like you’re a ghost going through your life.
JULAVITS: Are you ever still—as in not working—and happy?
SMITH: In general, I’m sort of happy. When I was younger, another sculptor told me, “The ground has to lay fallow.” It was like I’d been trying to expel everything inside of me with such urgency. It really took me until my 40s to realize that you have to have something come into you. You have to be nourished. It’s not just you spewing out your consciousness, spitting it all over everything.
JULAVITS: Practically speaking, what do you do to be fallow?
SMITH: Nothing. I clean my house, which can take forever. Or go see things. If I go away from home, I go look at shows. My husband is a beekeeper, so we do bees. I try to garden.
JULAVITS: But don’t you have that nagging sense in your brain that you’re at rest and you should be doing something else?
SMITH: No. But I will tell you that being postmenopausal is a part of it. When I was younger, if I went on the subway, I would have to be working on something. If we went to dinner parties or anything, I would be doing something all the time. And then that just disappeared. Now it feels like there’s room for more things to exist, whereas when I was younger, I would say that I was like a razor blade flying through space. I would always say, “You better move out of the way because I’m like a double-edged razor blade on my own trajectory and I can’t stop.” [laughs] But now I sit around thinking about I don’t know what.
JULAVITS: And you attribute that shift to hormones?
SMITH: I think hormones have a lot to do with one’s complete existence, but definitely, being postmenopausal, it’s just like all of a sudden you’re flatlining. I mean, I cried half of my adult life before I hit menopause. I would see or read something in the newspaper and it was like there was no separation between me and anything else in the world. Or some little nothing would happen and I would be weeping. I would be sitting in a restaurant, having a perfectly nice conversation with somebody and I would start weeping. Now I never weep. [laughs]
JULAVITS: Do you miss weeping?
SMITH: No. I say as a joke that from the time you’re about 13 to whenever you hit menopause, it’s like your body has been poisoned for the whole time, and then you come out of it and you think, “Oh.” I love things not being so intense.
JULAVITS: Do you notice a change in your work at all?
SMITH: I don’t know if it’s changed my work, but I definitely like it. When you go through menopause, it’s like you’re slightly hell on wheels, but you get to own yourself in a different way. The older you get, the more you accept yourself. That doesn’t mean you have to indulge yourself endlessly, but you’re more accepting and you have less at stake in a way. You’re not trying to make other people see you in some way, or trying to be the best girl. Nobody cares. I remember friends of mine telling me you just disappear, like nobody sees you anymore, you don’t exist culturally anymore, which is a big, big problem, like how roles for women in film and theater are so limited. But in another way, there is something really great about nobody caring about you. You can go around and say completely nutty things to people on the street. It’s an immense freedom.
JULAVITS: The only time I remember feeling that immense freedom is when I was pregnant, which is also a time when you’re not necessarily invisible, but there is a—
SMITH: You have something around you.
JULAVITS: There’s the safety of nullification. I could say anything, I could be so raunchy, and I was always just this sweet, pregnant lady. Okay, I am asking you this next question because a student of mine asked it of me. He said, “Has anyone ever made good work when they’re in love?” I started to think about this anecdote I heard from Mad Love, by André Breton, about Breton’s obsession with a Giacometti sculpture. Breton believed that the reason the sculpture was so great was because Giacometti was miserable and alone, and Breton was terrified that Giacometti was going to meet somebody and fall in love and ruin the sculpture. [Smith laughs] And, in fact, it came to pass that Giacometti fell in love and ruined the sculpture, and then the woman broke his heart and he fixed the sculpture, and Breton was happy. Anyway, I’m wondering if you have an opinion about being in love and making good art.
SMITH: I think love definitely gives you other things to occupy your time with. But I also think that love can be very inspiring because it gives you so much energy.
JULAVITS: Is there a corner that you associate with your early days in New York? One that, whenever you pass it, transports you back in time?
SMITH: I like the Temperance Fountain in Tompkins Square Park. People put down stones for dead people or for people they knew in the neighborhood. But I would say having assistants is like that, they are like corners. I’ve had different assistants, and they have been markers of every time.
JULAVITS: I asked that corner question because I was supposed to get a really good story from you about the ’80s.
SMITH: Oh, I don’t know stories from the ’80s. I’m not that nostalgic for when I was young. I like being me now. And I’m not much of a storyteller. I just like scratching things.
HEIDI JULAVITS IS THE AUTHOR OF FOUR NOVELS, AS WELL AS THE FOLDED CLOCK: A DIARY, THE CO-EDITOR OF THE ANTHOLOGY WOMEN IN CLOTHES, AND THE CO-FOUNDER OF THE BELIEVER MAGAZINE. SHE SPLITS HER TIME BETWEEN NEW YORK AND MAINE.