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 (GRI), 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 GRI.

In conjunction with the exhibition Getty is publishing a memoir by Smith, entitled The Way to Be and covering the first 50 years of the artist’s life. Drawing on her archive at the GRI, this book provides exhaustive documentation of Smith’s early work and presents previously unpublished notes, documents, photographs, and firsthand accounts of her life and practice, as well as her more recent reflections on the past.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 artmaking 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.
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,” said Barbara T. Smith.

Barbara T. Smith: The Way to Be, will be on view February 28 through July 16, 2023, at the GRI at the Getty Center.

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