Performance has been the central orientation of my life since the mid-sixties when I, by virtue of a divorce, stepped out of conventional life into this art reality. From that new stance, my entire milieu became my art and all the things I do and make as well. —Barbara T. Smith
During the late 1960s, Barbara T. Smith (b. 1931, Pasadena) began to make actions, ritual meals, and other kinds of live art. Though working at the margins of traditional art contexts, her work was central to the development of what came to be called, by the 1970s, performance art. Since then, she has made over 160 performances: radical, interdisciplinary actions that demonstrate her sustained investigation of the intersection of, as she has defined it, “real life and performance.” Through her work, Smith has explored such subjects as the body, societal norms, desire, gendered roles, food, ritual, technology, personal transformation, collaboration, abuse and healing, death and aging.
This exhibition features many of Smith’s most significant works, presented chronologically beginning in 1965 with early paintings, drawings, and assemblages. Her Black Glass Paintings are more mirror than monochrome, reflecting the viewer and the room, and in doing so, forecast the significance of the body in her art making. At the time, Smith was an emerging artist testing her ideas about art and the self. She was one of the first artists to use a Xerox machine, which she deployed as a tool to make art about her life, often using her own body as object, subject, concept, and medium. She would continue to employ new technologies to make art throughout her career including fiberglass resin, soundwaves, television, artificial intelligence, video-phone, and digital imaging.
While Smith is celebrated for her performance art, she has always been a maker of things and an archivist of her output. Her unswervingly bold experimentation flows from her earliest paintings, Xerox prints, drawings, and sculptures to the wide range of objects and ephemera made for, and often resulting from, her performance art works. Together, they offer proof of a life lived as art.
Barbara T. Smith: Proof is organized by ICA LA guest curator Jenelle Porter with support from Amanda Sroka, Senior Curator, and Caroline Ellen Liou, Curatorial Assistant.
Lead funding is provided by Metabolic Studios.
Major support for Barbara T. Smith: Proof is provided by The Ellsworth Kelly Award, made possible by The Ellsworth Kelly Foundation and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Vera R. Campbell Foundation, and Karen Hillenburg.
The exhibition is also generously funded by Jill and Peter Kraus, Dori Peterman-Mostov and Charles Mostov the Michael Asher Foundation, the Pasadena Art Alliance, and The Jay DeFeo Foundation.
Additional support provided by Visionary Women and Marla and Jeffrey Michaels.
ICA LA is supported by the Curator’s Council and Fieldwork Council.
Jenelle Porter is a curator, writer and editor. Most recently she organized Kay Sekimachi: Geometries for the Berkeley Art Museum, Less Is a Bore: Maximalist Art & Design for the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, and Mike Kelley: Timeless Painting for the Mike Kelley Foundation at Hauser & Wirth, New York. She is currently co-editing An Indigenous Present with artist Jeffrey Gibson (fall 2023), and a monograph on Viola Frey (2024).
From 2011–2015, Porter was Mannion Family Senior Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, where she organized acclaimed thematic exhibitions such as Fiber: Sculpture 1960–present and Figuring Color: Kathy Butterly, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Roy McMakin, Sue Williams; as well as monographic exhibitions of Arlene Shechet, Erin Shirreff, Mary Reid Kelley, Jeffrey Gibson, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Dianna Molzan, and Christina Ramberg. Prior to her years in Boston, Porter was curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (2005–2010), where she organized the group exhibitions Dance with Camera and Dirt on Delight: Impulses That Form Clay, as well as the first surveys of Trisha Donnelly and Charline von Heyl. From 1998–2001 Porter was curator at Artists Space in New York. She began her career in curatorial positions at both the Walker Art Center and the Whitney Museum of American Art.