Barbara T. Smith – a retrospective at GRI

“Have fun making art and doing it in the world.”

Barbara T. Smith

Only an established artist has the luxury of making a statement like this… Barbara T. Smith is a conceptual and performance artist whose artistic experiments and explorations span almost a century. Now, at 91 years of age, the artist is enjoying a retrospective of her life’s work so far, currently on view at the Getty Research Institute at the Getty Center

As part of the Getty Research Institute‘s (GRI) recent focus on works acquired in their archived collection of important women artists, this marks the fourth of their solo exhibitions.

“The GRI has many pieces of Smith’s works in their archives, and are pleased to publish her memoir that covers the first 50 years of her extensive life.”

When viewing the exhibition, it’s recommended that you download the Getty Guide audio app to hear her taking you through the exhibition with an explanatory audio track. ***Remember to bring your own headphones.***

Additionally, all the wall text describing the artifacts, displayed in English and Spanish, represent the artist’s own words.

Says the head of the GRI, “It is a passion project to publish Barbara’s memoir, and an opportunity to work with a living artist.” He explains how the work of the GRI is about conservation and preservation, but also bringing artists such as Smith into the 21st century.

The exhibition is conceived by curators Glenn Phillips and Pietro Rigolo as if told in the first person, with wall texts, labels and didactics drawn from Smith’s memoir, and from extensive interviews conducted in 2022. The audio guide, narrated by the artist herself, will provide an unprecedented opportunity to dive into her life and practice following her own voice and recollections.

Says Glen Phillips, head of acquisitions and co-creator, “A show like this for Barbara has been a long time coming. I thought about this show 9-16 years ago! 45 years ago Barbara started writing her memoir, from her birth to age 50. Barbara — you are such a bad-ass!”

Says Pietro Rigolo, “Why make art? It’s something we do because it’s really fun and you get to do what you want to do. The realm of art-making into action, working in the world.”

From the press release:

For over half a decade Barbara T. Smith (b. 1931 in Pasadena) has been at the forefront of artistic movements in California. Her work has taken the varied forms of painting, drawing, installation, video, performance, and artist’s books, and often involves her own body as a vehicle for her art.

On view February 28 through July 16, 2023 at the Getty Research Institute, Barbara T. Smith: The Way to Be, an autobiographical exhibition presented in her own words explores concepts that strike at the core of human nature, including sexuality, physical and spiritual sustenance, technology, and death.

“This exhibition is Smith’s first major museum exhibition and allows unprecedented insight into her practice, presenting a wealth of materials from Southern California collections and Getty Research Institute’s own extensive holdings, which include the Barbara T. Smith papers and Smith’s groundbreaking Coffin series of Xerox books”

says Mary Miller, director of the Getty Research Institute.

In conjunction with the exhibition Getty is publishing a memoir by Smith, entitled The Way to Be and covering the first fifty years of the artist’s life. Drawing on her archive at the Getty Research Institute, this book provides exhaustive documentation of Smith’s early work and presents previously unpublished notes, documents, photographs, and firsthand accounts of her life and practice, as well as her more recent reflections on the past. The Way to Be demonstrates Smith’s lasting contributions to the field of contemporary art and provides an engaging commentary on a recent period of great cultural and political change.

The exhibition is conceived by curators Glenn Phillips and Pietro Rigolo as if told in the first person, with wall texts, labels and didactics drawn from Smith’s memoir, and from extensive interviews conducted in 2022. The audio guide, narrated by the artist herself, will provide an unprecedented opportunity to dive into her life and practice following her own voice and recollections. 

The exhibition begins with Smith’s conservative upbringing in Pasadena as well as her early marriage and motherhood up to 1965, a year that marked Smith’s artistic breakthrough with her Black Glass Paintings. In 1966, Smith began using a Xerox machine for art-making purposes, making her one of the first artists in the world to begin exploring the medium. The explosion of creativity resulted in pioneering works such as the Coffin series of Xerox books, in which she experimented with photocopying photographs, a multitude of objects, as well as her own body.  

After her divorce Smith made a radical life-changing decision to dedicate her life to avant-garde art. A selection of her most significant projects up to 1981 highlight Smith’s interest in the intersections between art, science, and technology; performances engaging with spirituality and the creation of rituals; works that engage and challenge feminist debates in the 1970s; and her exploration of human bonds and connections through a practice grounded in her own body. The exhibition will include Field Piece, an installation presenting what remains of the large, high-tech environment the artist built in the early 1970s; a visualization of the dinner set of her early performance Ritual Meal of 1969; and The Way to Be, a complex wall arrangement of performance documentation that will be re-installed for the first time as it was originally presented in 1972. Other performances in the show include Nude Frieze, Intimations of Immortality, Feed Me, and Pure Food. The inclusion of the recent Signifiers prints (2016), and Untitled (Yellow Center), part of her groundbreaking series of Black Glass Paintings from the mid-1960s, will offer a novel reading of her multi-faceted practice. 

“For me, the impulse to create art came in the form of an inner gift of consciousness and imperative energy. A gift I would ignore at my peril. Performance art revealed itself to be a healing practice which enabled my mind, my body, and spirit to cohere. 

Barbara T. Smith.

Looking back, what does all this mean to me now?

This art has been the expression of my life! It has been a way for me to deal with pain, and isolation. It has been a journey into meaning making. Through it I have been able to establish my own ground and identity, from which to speak.”

Barbara T. Smith.
Barbara T. Smith (American, b. 1931)
The Getty Research Institute, 2014.M.14
Photo: Unknown
Barbara T. Smith: The Way to Be

On view now through  July 16, 2023, at the Getty Research Institute at the Getty Center

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Banner image – The Celebration of the Lizard (detail), Spirit Animals (detail), 2022, Denilson Baniwa. Digital intervention on Columnam à Praefecto prima navigation locatam venerantur Floridenses (Column in Honor of the First Voyage to Florida) (detail), from Jacques de Morgues Le Moyne (French, ca. 1533–before 1588), Brevis narratio eorum quae in Florida Americæ provincia Gallis acciderunt (Frankfurt, 1591), pl. 8, Getty Research Institute, 87-B24110. Courtesy the artist. Design © 2022 J. Paul Getty Trust.

Pauline Adamek

Pauline Adamek is a Los Angeles-based arts enthusiast with twenty-five years' experience covering International Film Festivals and reviewing new Theatre, Film and Restaurants.


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