The coffee table in Barbara T. Smith's Venice home is piled high with aging cassette tapes. She's been sorting through audio from a 1981 performance piece called "Birthdaze" in preparation for "The Radicalization of a '50s Housewife," her upcoming solo show at UC Irvine's University Art Gallery.
The piece, originally performed on Smith's 50th birthday, was a feminist tour de force in which she enacted a version of her own life story in relation — quite literally — to the male avant-garde. It began in a lewd tussle with fellow performance artists Paul McCarthy and Kim Jones; proceeded into a kind of love triangle with artist Allen Kaprow and Dick Kilgroe, motorcycle racer and former boyfriend, against a soundtrack of interviews with Vietnam veterans; and ended in a lengthy tantric ritual with another artist, Vic Henderson.
The show, one of many in which Smith's work will appear over the course of Pacific Standard Time (though the only to focus on her work exclusively), will provide documentation of "Birthdaze" and place it in the context of her remarkable but still largely unsung career.
"The title of the Irvine show is unequivocally autobiographical. Indeed, it would be difficult to speak of Smith's work at all without referring to her life to some degree. Like many women who came to consciousness in the 1960s, she takes the feminist mantra "the personal is political" as a fundamental principle. Now 80, a lively woman with short white hair, vivid blue eyes and a keen yet guileless conversational manner, she speaks with striking candor of the many experiences that have fed her art.
When asked about the nature of her "radicalization," the genesis of that journey from housewife to artist, she recounts a painful episode from adolescence. She grew up in Pasadena, the daughter of strict Presbyterian parents. When she became involved with a star of the UCLA football team, her parents disapproved.
"My father told me that if I ever went out with him again, I was not to consider myself his daughter," she said. "He was effectively making sexuality and who I chose to mate [with] — I doubt very much I would have married him — conditional on his love for me. It totally screwed me up."
The muddled entanglements of sexuality and power, longing and rebellion embodied in this early confrontation would go on to be predominant themes for Smith. In 1951, while a student at Pomona College, she married a man her parents approved of and had three children. Having studied art, she was determined to become an artist, but the notion was met by family and friends with tepid enthusiasm. "They thought of me painting on Sunday and that sort of thing," she says.
She became an unwitting pioneer. She installed a rented Xerox machine in her dining room and photocopied everything in sight, including some startlingly intimate regions of her body, to produce a series of artist's books, becoming one of the first artists in the country to employ this new technology. She framed a series of large, black, vaguely Minimalist paintings behind glass to transform their matte surfaces into what were essentially mirrors — "concept paintings" (her term) at the dawn of Conceptualism that also anticipated elements of Postmodern crititique.
Most important, after participating in a workshop with artist Alex Hay, a member of the New York-based Judson Dance Theater, she began to make performance art years before there was such a term.
Food, the body and spiritual imagery figured prominently in these early performances. "Ritual Meal" (1969) was a dinner party in which guests were obliged to dress in scrubs and eat with surgical instruments while film footage depicted the cosmos, naked figures and open heart surgery overhead. In "Feed Me" (1973), her best known piece, Smith installed herself, nude, on a mattress in a women's restroom over the duration of an all-night performance festival, surrounded by, among other things, an array of food, wine, marijuana and massage oil, while a looped recording repeated the words "feed me." Participants were admitted one at a time.
It is a common characteristic of performance artists that they are captivating people, and Smith is no exception. It is less a sense of theatricality or flair, as with an actor, than one of dimly perceived mystical knowledge. Performance artists, particularly those of Smith's generation, tread closer than most to the danger zones of the human psyche, leaving them uniquely prone to both revelation and burnout. Smith describes a breakthrough she had in the early 1960s, for instance, in near breathless terms even 50 years later: "My whole internal structure completely changed. Visually, what I saw — the whole world became miraculous."
Such moments of transcendence have been hard won, however. Smith's marriage broke up in 1968 and she lost custody of her children in an ugly court battle. (She remained connected to her son, the oldest, but went for 17 years without seeing her daughters. Her son died of AIDS complications in 1997.) Having forsaken the financial security of marriage and making little work that was salable, she floated between studios for years before buying her current house in 1985, where she lives on the ground floor and rents out the bedrooms. Distraught by her divorce and drained by her work, Smith immersed herself in Buddhism in the mid-1970s and developed a serious meditation practice, later supplemented with studies in Native American rituals and yoga. Much of her subsequent work has built upon these mystical strains.
Smith conceived of "Birthdaze," the piece in the Irvine show, to commemorate her 50th birthday. And now, just past her 80th? "I'm in an open field with no parameters," she says. She waves at the audio tapes and piles of papers. "When all this documentation is done, I hope to make more art. I have things to finish."