Mortality, Morbidity And More

For someone with all the trappings of a severely intimidating modern artist--long, insane-asylum-gray hair, all-black garb and hieroglyphic tattoos--Kiki Smith is awfully considerate with an interviewer. She talks slowly, enunciates precisely (her mother was an opera singer and actress) and takes a genuinely noncombative view of art. "To me," she says, "it's like a wind. It's not something that should be about one thing or another. Different things are always moving you, or telling you to pay attention."

That may sound hippie-ish--and Smith, 52, did drop out of art school when she was 21 and make for San Francisco, where she lived communally with a rock band called The Tubes. But she's an almost maniacally productive artist--"A Gathering," her retrospective of more than 200 works, just opened at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston and will arrive at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art in November. And she's one of the most important sculptors working today. In the 1980s, her metal representations of body organs made her a force in the burgeoning East Village art scene. In the '90s, her wax female figures (one menstruating red beads, another on all fours, trailing a nine-foot tail of faux excrement) made her one of the lightning rods in the "culture wars." No less an eminence than Metropolitan Museum of Art director Philippe de Montebello leapt to the barricades in The New York Times, pronouncing the crawling woman "simply disgusting and devoid of any craft or aesthetic merit."

Not true. This figure is no more graphic than the religious visions painted by Hieronymous Bosch, and it's hardly devoid of craft. Smith spent part of her adolescence making models for her father, the architect and minimalist sculptor Tony Smith; while a struggling artist, she did odd-job construction and electrical work. From plaster pigeons to cast-iron doll-like girls, from delicate large-scale ink drawings (a couple tinted with her own blood) to etched glass, Smith has put her hands on just about every available art material. With her skills--and an unquenchable obsession with the vulnerability of the human body--she's navigated a path that curlicues between the discipline of traditional, solid-object sculpture and the poetic freedom of installation art.

In an art world where deliberate--even forced--stylistic change is valued the way lock-step consistency used to be a generation ago, Smith manages the best of both worlds. Individually, her works look very different, but they seem strikingly similar in their spirit of--and this is a compliment--punk preciousness. "I'm influenced by all kinds of artists I've known," she says. "Lynda Benglis, Pat Steir, Nancy Spero. They're all over the place in terms of what they pay attention to, but I have no dogmatic vision about what art should be."

Smith was born in an Army hospital in Germany: her mother, Jane Lawrence Smith, was on a European singing tour. Back home in New Jersey, her parents raised her Roman Catholic, in the house Tony was born in. "My father was brought up as a Jesuit, and my mother was a convert," she says. "I related to the fetishism in Catholicism--I'm very attracted to 'spiritual architecture,' how spirituality is physically manifested." Her first solo show, at New York's alternative space the Kitchen in 1983, was in part a collaboration with the artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz. He later died in the epidemic, as did dealer Joe Fawbush, who gave Smith her first gallery solo. One of Smith's younger twin sisters, Beatrice, succumbed to AIDS in 1988. (The other, Seton, is a prominent photographer.)

No wonder, then, that there's an anger and darkness to Smith's earlier work, including those controversial female figures. "My younger work was about mortality," she says. "My father died [in 1980], and then my sister died. That altered my perception of the world. I was also a fairly morbid child. And then, at a certain point, I started paying attention to things outside myself. I just changed. You have to change sometimes." How might that change manifest itself in her work? "When you get older," Smith says, "you want to make things outside your 'house,' out in the real world. I want to make a spiritual 'house,' a space --maybe for public fountains." If that seems like a turnaround for a once confrontational artist, what can we say? It's just the way the wind is blowing.