‘Spiritual and Ritualistic’: Barbara T Smith’s feminist performances go on show at Getty

View Gallery 6 Photos
Performance documentation of Pure Food, 1973. Photographer: Tom Horowitz.
All images ©  Barbara T Smith courtesy of Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.

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Exploring sexuality, spirituality, and the limits of women’s societal roles, Barbara T Smith’s ‘autobiographical exhibition’ charts the artist’s practice through interviews and passages from her upcoming memoir

Barbara T Smith spearheaded West Coast feminist performance art in the second half of the 20th century. Alongside contemporaries such as Carolee Schneemann and Judy Chicago, Smith uses art to explore the female body, sexuality, and the limits of women’s expected roles in society. This February, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles shows Barbara T Smith: The Way to Be – an ‘autobiographical exhibition’ charting her unusual practice. Curated by Glenn Phillips and Pietro Rigolo, the show is conveyed in first-person through wall texts, interview snippets and passages from the artist’s upcoming memoir of the same name.

Smith’s early work made imaginative use of a photocopier. During her divorce in the mid-1960s, she purchased a 914 model Xerox copy machine for her home and began an inquisitive process with her own body, making erotic images of her nude form – including, in one case, her clitoris – as well as household objects, plants and her children. These copies were often printed and repeated on pale pink, yellow and blue paper, imbuing them with a pop art aesthetic. Many were bound into books. 

Field Piece, 1971

She subsequently enrolled in the University of California’s MFA programme and her practice broadened to include performance, drawing, video and painting. “The performances were spiritual and ritualistic, and meant to be transformational for me, the artist,” she says. “The Xerox works were more of an intellectual and technically innovative conversation with art history.” Smith’s own body, and the use of photography to document her collaborative performances, have been central threads throughout her career.

The exhibition also charts her commentary on human nature, taking in vast subjects such as sexuality, spirituality, technology and death. The show takes in the full timeline of her practice, drawing on the Getty Research Institute’s archive, as well as unpublished personal notes, documents and photographs. Her work is inherently connected with her life, and the exhibition touches on her conservative early years growing up in Pasadena, marriage and motherhood in her early 20s, and subsequent discovery of the artistic avant-garde.

“My 50 years of work is parallel with many other women artists across Europe and America,” Smith says. “It was a global phenomenon of conscience-awakening. Art education was available to women, and performance was an available medium to them rather than painting. Performance was brand new: we discovered it, and we were defining the medium and doing it out of an inner necessity. We were not recognised by the male art world, but our presence was pervasive, and women critics started writing from their own perspective. Gradually, it has been taken seriously, and now it is easier for most artists of my generation.”

Barbara T Smith: The Way to Be is on at the Getty Research Institute at the Getty Center until 16 July 2023