New York

Barbara T. Smith, Xerox, Birth, 1965–66, Xerox, 14 x 8 1/2".

Barbara T. Smith, Xerox, Birth, 1965–66, Xerox, 14 x 8 1/2".

Barbara T. Smith

Barbara T. Smith, Xerox, Birth, 1965–66, Xerox, 14 x 8 1/2".

Barbara T. Smith, and her definitively SoCal brand of corporeally oriented Conceptualism, has until recently been underrepresented on the East Coast. In 2015, the artist’s first exhibition with Andrew Kreps Gallery centered on her work in resin, a medium she was drawn to in 1968 for its seemingly contradictory qualities of transparency and resilience. This, her second exhibition with the gallery, examined these qualities in regard to her visionary engagements with technology in the 1960s and ’70s. Archival materials documenting three cultish performances were shown alongside a suite produced over three years with a 914 Xerox machine. The show couldn’t have been timelier: Opening January 18, two days before the second Women’s March, it reckoned with the ways in which identity can be constituted and alienated by developments in technology and imagemaking, and what this all foists on women in particular. One work from the series “Untitled,” 1965–66, features ten images of a fringed eye, blown up and blown out in muted gray scale, with concentric circle targets variously replacing the pupil—the ocular eclipsed by a symbol for its function in advertising’s feedback loops.

It should be underscored that the artist’s innovations are inextricable from her need for self-representation. In 1965, Smith leased a copy machine and installed it in her dining room. There, she documented the labor and effects of housekeeping and motherhood while testing what the machine made possible in terms of image production. She painted directly on the machine’s glass with food and makeup, arranged quotidian objects and photographs there, and pressed her body against its surface. This project was pioneering on several accounts—it was initiated, for example, three years before Seth Siegelaub and John Wendler published their iconic Xerox Book, and nearly a decade before Chantal Akerman made her slow-burn domestic stunner film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)or Mary Kelly exhibited Post-Partum Document, 1973–79. But more radical than Smith’s feminist content or technological experimentation was her metaphorical connection between the reproduction of images and reproductive labor. These works serve as testaments to unrecognized work as much as they allow the artist to trace, by producing discrete images of time as it passes, what was being done. With each successive copy, the images become increasingly dulled and obscured, much like the gestures of domestic labor, which so often go unseen in their repetition. It’s as if these images have worn themselves out, exhausted by the work of their own replication.

The most affecting of these images was a series that features an almost besetting layering of portraits, taken by Jerry McMillan, of Smith’s children. Produced in the years that saw the dissolution of the artist’s marriage, these portraits, obscured by moiré or registration marks, differently employ reproduction as a way of measuring time. With these, Smith takes Roland Barthes’s punctum and extends it, as though the multiplication of an image might delay death or undo distance. But her confrontation with “what has been” refers as much to her children’s youth and her former family as it does to the way in which images were produced and performed before printing machines became accessible and less specialized.

Documentation of Smith’s performances evinces the proclivity of culture to reach back to nature as it processes and is asked to trust new technologies. Scan 1, 1974, explored the embodiment of media. Two groups of people were invited to participate: One was asked to respond choreographically to cues embedded in a series of television commercials, resulting in a performance that mirrored television’s electronic scanning methods. The other was asked to observe and decipher the absurdist proceedings. By contrast, for The Longest Day of Night, Smith attempted to sync communal experience to the cosmos, organizing a dinner event in her Pasadena, California, studio during the winter solstice of 1973, when a comet was approaching. Guests wore celestial colors and ate only black—caviar, baked bananas, licorice—before watching the comet from the Mount Wilson Observatory at dawn. For Outside Chance, 1975, a collaboration with computer scientist Richard Rubenstein, the artist released three thousand unique computer-generated prints of snowflakes from the twenty-first floor of the Las Vegas Plaza Hotel. Making it snow in the desert, the work was something of a compromise—an ecstatic concession to the technological sublime. 

Annie Godfrey Larmon