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Barbara T. Smith, “The Way to Be”
Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, California
Review by David S. Rubin

Installation view of “Barbara T. Smith: The Way to Be,” Courtesy of the Getty Research Institute


Continuing through July 16, 2023


Barbara T. Smith is an under-recognized artist whose long-overdue time has come. This is well earned. Thanks to the Getty Research Institute, the 92-year-old Smith’s pioneering contributions to performance art are being presented to general audiences through access to her archives, the publication of her memoir, and a consolidated retrospective exhibition. Along with the presentation of a few physical art objects from early and late in her career, the exhibition documents eight performances from 1969-1981 using a variety of installation formats, including photos, video, descriptive wall texts, a downloadable audio guide of Smith herself discussing the works, and staged “sets” using the remaining parts of one installation and replicas of furniture and sculptural components from others.


A frustrated suburban housewife in the 1950s, Smith divorced in the 1960s and by the early 1970s was part of an experimental performance art milieu that included peers such as Nancy Buchanan, Chris Burden, and Suzanne Lacy. An artist all her life, as the exhibition reveals through the inclusion of childhood drawings and homemade Christmas cards, Smith used art as a therapeutic vehicle for a personal spiritual journey that began with and is related to the sexual revolution.


Smith’s earliest performative actions were actually part of her printmaking experiments, using a leased Xerox 914 machine, during the mid-1960s, contemporaneously with Wallace Berman’s production of printed collages made with a Verifax copier. Using her own nude body in a manner that foreshadowed her career as a performance artist, she made body prints with the Xerox machine and then assembled them to form a lyrical accordion-folded book sculpture.


In her memoir, Smith explains that she views artworks as “triggers or clues from the artist, attempts to convey insight and experience to the viewer, so they in turn could have their own experience.” This was clearly her intention in her first performance work, “Ritual Meal” (1969), where her goal was to make invited guests feel uncomfortable so that they would question their actions. After a long wait to enter a private home, guests put on surgical caps and gowns and face paint as they were led by silent performers. The table settings, which are exquisitely replicated in a new “visualization” of the originals, included pristine surgical instruments, while the environment contained projections of heart surgery, internal human body systems, and galaxies. The served food was mostly raw, meant to be cooked at the table or eaten with one’s fingers, and all of this took place over five hours, accompanied by a soundtrack of conflicting noises emanating from a variety of sources.


For her second major performance piece, Smith invested her own money and considerable time and labor to create “Field Piece” (1968-71), an immersive, interactive installation of 180 tubular pastel-colored resin blades of “grass” that stand over nine-feet tall and were randomly organized in clusters over a cushy flooring that concealed electronic equipment which, when stepped on, would trigger light and sound effects. Although most of the blades were eventually damaged, those that remain are on view. Shown at three locations in the early 1970s, “Field Piece” was intended to be “an arena of unquestioning acceptance. It was sensuous, hypnotic, and meditative,” a place of “spiritual warmth.” On one occasion, Smith organized an event where willing participants walked through the installation in the nude and, at another time, she and an art shipper were alone in the space and shared a sexual encounter. For a cultural context, remember that these activities took place just a few years after the Summer of Love, Woodstock, and the rise of sex and nudity in film and theater. 


In performance works that followed, Smith explored the relationship between sexuality and spirituality. As she evolved, she worked with a number of therapists and learned about Buddhism. Later on, she was a therapist herself, teaching men to find spiritual enlightenment through Tantric sex. Not surprisingly, sex and meditation became part of her performance art practice.


In 1973, Smith performed “Feed Me” at San Francisco’s Museum of Conceptual Art. With the goal of demonstrating that “even in the most vulnerable situation, no woman was available to be acted upon sexually without giving explicit consent,” Smith sat naked in the women’s restroom where she provided body oils, flowers, coffee, tea, wine, books, food, music, and cannabis. Voluntary participants — almost all men — entered one at a time for a one-on-one experience. Sex was an option, but only if Smith agreed to proceed. Most of the interactions were in fact nonsexual, yet profound or magical. Since these encounters were designed to be private, the only photo or video documentation that exists is of Smith alone in the space and people waiting outside the entrance. Her specific recollections, however, are described in her memoir. 


“Pure Food” (1973), documented with a single photograph, was performed in an idyllic outdoor setting, in isolation, during the daytime. After choosing a spot in the center of a Costa Mesa field where she could see the ocean, the highway, buildings, and oil wells, Smith meditated and received “light energy” from the sun for eight hours. The oneness with the cosmos that she felt was as strong as the bliss of the human connections she made during “Feed Me.” Performance art by now served as her vehicle to nourish both her body and soul.


In the final documented performance, “Birthdaze” (1981), Smith fulfilled her ultimate quest to achieve a unity of sexual and spiritual energies with another human being. The Getty installation of Persian rugs and ottomans, collages that accompanied the performance, a projection of alternating photos, and difficult-to-read ceiling-to-floor wall text only hint at what took place. It is advisable to read Smith’s memoir or conduct some online research. The performance was structured in three parts, with each section representing a different period in the evolution of Smith’s life and spiritual growth. Her collaborators included two former lovers (one an artist/mentor) and several artist peers. In the final segment, Smith and the artist Victor Henderson are seated in a veiled off space, dressed in kimonos while tastefully engaging in a sacred sexual ritual where orgasm was not permitted, so that the unleashing of higher energies could take place. Through this work, Smith and Henderson achieved what she views as “a level of integrated wholeness,” where the patriarchal tradition of the male dominating the female was replaced by a situation where both participants became fully bonded as equals.

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