The Sculpted Presence of Kiki Smith and Tony Smith

American artist Kiki Smith is like an intrepid rambler who sets off each day without a map or even a destination, but with full certainty that she will encounter something interesting along the way. “It’s not like I exactly know what I’m doing,” says the artist over the phone from her home in New York. “I’m just following my intuition.”


Kiki Smith (2011). Photo © Erik Madigan Heck

For three decades, Smith’s intuition has guided her to international acclaim for figurative drawings, prints and sculptures exploring the human figure and nature. One of the most striking examples is Born (2002), her bronze sculpture showing a life-sized doe giving birth to a fully formed woman. The work emerged from a series of meandering thoughts: about a painting the artist saw in the Louvre, depicting Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris; about the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, who at the end climbs unscathed from the belly of the Big Bad Wolf; about European dualism; and about the work of American Art Deco sculptor Paul Manship.


Kiki Smith, Born (2002), bronze, 99.1 x 256.5 x 61 cm. NGC. © Kiki Smith, courtesy Pace Gallery, New York

Born is currently on view at the National Gallery alongside Black Box (1962–67), by Tony Smith, the influential Minimalist sculptor who was Kiki’s father. Organized by NGC Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Rhiannon Vogl, Kiki Smith and Tony Smith is a Masterpiece in Focus exhibition that offers an interesting examination of the shifts in art history that took place between the 1960s and the early 2000s: shifts from figuration to abstraction and back. “What I find very interesting about these two sculptures,” said Vogl in an interview with NGC Magazine, “is not necessarily that they were made by a father and daughter, but that they can be used to focus on this idea of abstraction, narrative, and figuration, and that, working at different moments in history, they each use a very different visual language, but have certain links.” Vogl also presents a number of archival drawings, prints, photographs and videos that help to reveal the artists’ working processes.


Tony Smith (1960s), photographer unknown, courtesy Tony Smith Estate

Among the photographs is one showing Black Box sitting outside among some trees. The steel sculpture, inspired by a small wooden file box seen on a friend’s desk and enlarged five-fold, was being weathered and rusted over a winter, as the artist sought to expose its earthy materiality. Tony Smith had studied at the New Bauhaus in Chicago in the late 1930s, worked for Frank Lloyd Wright, and enjoyed a successful career as an architect before turning to sculpture in the 1960s. Black Box was his first in a series of large-scale geometric sculptures in steel, and he preferred to think of it as a “presence,” rather than a sculpture. It uses the language of architecture to suggest physical containment, life on earth, and death — themes also of interest to his daughter.


Tony Smith, Black Box (1962–67), steel, 57.1 x 83.8 x 63.5 cm. NGC © Estate of Tony Smith / SODRAC (2016)

Kiki Smith grew up immersed in 1960s Abstract Expressionism, in the same rambling Victorian house in South Orange, New Jersey, where her father was born. Another photograph in the exhibition shows her with her two sisters around the dining table, making paper maquettes for their father in what was a regular after-school activity. Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman were frequent visitors to the Smiths’ home. “I grew up in a family of abstraction,” she says, “being surrounded by abstract work. We went to see work in museums, but I wasn’t around representational work practically until I went to college. We didn’t watch movies, or have music, and we didn’t have television.”

The family did have a whole attic full of stories, however, in the form of ancestors’ clothing, dentures and even a death mask, and a Catholic upbringing ensured a close affinity for religious icons and narratives. After briefly attending art school and settling in New York, Kiki began making etchings in the late 1970s, primarily of everyday objects. It was only after her father’s death in 1980 that she decided to become a full-time artist, turning to themes of mortality and decay in drawings, prints and sculptures, and holding her first solo exhibition in 1982. Since then, Kiki Smith has created a vast body of work, inspired variously by religious iconography, mythology, fairy tales, feminism, AIDS, birth, transformation and metamorphosis.

The forms in Born first showed up in a printed collage she made of the Genevieve figure from the Louvre, then in a series of bronze sculptures: Genevieve and the May Wolf (2000), which features a woman standing beside a wolf; Rapture (2001), in which she steps out from the wolf’s open belly; and Born, with its deer.


Kiki Smith, Born (detail) [2002], bronze, 99.1 x 256.5 x 61 cm. NGC. © Kiki Smith, courtesy Pace Gallery, New York

Part of the artist’s interest in the juxtaposition of women and nature comes from the field of Western European dualism, in which God, man and the body are found on one side of a dichotomy, and women, nature and the spirit on the other. “I thought, they have a natural affinity to one another,” says Smith. This interest also has sources in the many Art Deco relief sculptures she has seen in New York and elsewhere in the United States, created in the 1920s and 1930s by artists such as Paul Manship. Not only do these allegorical sculptures often feature women and deer, but they also have a flatness that appeals to the artist. “It’s a kind of static animation that is very dynamic and interesting to me,” says Smith. “It has this single-sided quality of animation and lyrical movement.” That two-dimensionality is visible in Born, where the woman’s body extends along one plane, her arms folded over her breast, as if in a religious statue.

Rhiannon Vogl hopes visitors to this exhibition will find unexpected connections between Born and Black Box. “I think it’s really interesting to think about Kiki’s work as abstract,” she says, “and to think about Tony’s work with narrative and figuration, and how each relates to the body both in an abstract and a metaphysical sense.”

Kiki Smith and Tony Smith is on view at the National Gallery until April 24, 2016. Kiki Smith will be in conversation with curator Rhiannon Vogl as part of the Contemporary Conversations series on Thursday, March 31 at 6 pm in the Auditorium (free admission. Seats will be allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis). For more information please click here.

Share this article: 

About the Author