Interviews

Kiki Smith

Kiki Smith, Lying with the Wolf (detail), 2001, ink and pencil on paper, 72 x 88".

During this interview, Kiki Smith was multitasking, wrestling with a cat collar and making granola in preparation for an imminent trip to Europe. The American artist was crossing the Atlantic to finalize several exhibitions, including a survey at the Monnaie de Paris that will be on view until February 9, 2020. The show features one hundred works—including two courtyard-placed sculptures—created between 1980 and this year. The Paris mint is a fitting location in which to spotlight Smith’s work, given her personal interest in coins and medallions, which she happens to collect. Using what she calls “alternating rhythms” rather than a chronological or thematic approach to presenting her pieces—gracefully rendered in materials from bronze to plaster, porcelain to paper—the exhibition spotlights her pantheons of feminine silhouettes and animal iconography.

I HAD MY FIRST SOLO EXHIBITION when I was thirty-four. By that point, I’d been showing in New York for maybe ten years already. Many of my contemporaries were already showing, so in some ways, I am a late bloomer. But I needed that time. It’s not like I was sitting on a gold mine at home that the world needed to see! I needed every one of those days of struggling and hating everything I made. I wasn’t trying to get anywhere. People can get frustrated when they feel they deserve visibility or recognition for their work at a given moment. But society might not need it at that moment—it might never need it, or maybe it will need it a hundred years later. It can’t come from that. It has to come from just you needing to do it. You need to find what engages you in the process to sustain yourself. Most artists’ experience is of sitting at home, where nothing is going on and nobody could care less what you’re doing. You have to care about it yourself.

That being said, I’m sixty-five, so I’ve had the opportunity to show my work for thirty years now. That’s not a bad run. When I was a young woman, showing my work gave me a tremendous amount of energy because there were so few models or opportunities for women artists, in terms of recognition in the power structures of museums. That meant you could just do anything you wanted, because nobody cared. This has changed to some extent.

Of course, we have a long way to go to achieve equality in most aspects of life. There are strides that have to be made, and we are all going to hell in a handbasket in relationship to larger issues of planetary disaster. All of us are implicated in that, and in perpetuating inequality. That’s all of our department.

I feel enormously grateful that I’ve been able to support myself since 1988 as an artist—to me that’s like a miracle. My phone hasn’t been turned off, and my electricity is on. I’m living a very good life. I think you have to have a fair amount of chutzpah and stick-to-it-tive-ness if you want to get from one place to another as an artist. You can have the ideas, but it’s in the process of making and showing up, of putting in the hours, that things are revealed and where there’s movement.

For this exhibition, I try to juxtapose things so that there’s not really a clear reading of how they should be perceived. I’ve made a certain number of these things, and others were available to be exhibited circumstantially. Out of that I’ve tried to make a collision of work, putting pieces together in ways I haven’t seen before. It’s exciting to think, “Oh yeah, I know that form”—and then shifting or moving it just a bit to renew it and make it feel alive.

I’m very pragmatic—I very much enjoy dealing with what’s at hand and not getting too utopian about how things should be. I very much appreciate my discontent. I have to struggle to find something that brings me satisfaction or clarity. After prolonged experiences with materials, you want to access something new, and then it’s a great pleasure and impetus to see if you can find yourself in another methodology of working. The last couple of years, I’ve been taking etchings that I made, scanning them, and then blowing them up in Xeroxes and tracing them into clay to make very low-relief sculptures. That, somehow, to me, is just an endlessly pleasurable thing to do and think about. Sometimes I take a break from it, to see what else I can find. You have to just wait, or clean your house, or something like that, till it becomes evident what to do.

— As told to Sarah Moroz

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