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January 18 - April 10, 2005 at Pomona College Museum of Art, Claremont

by Diane Calder

“Feed Me,” photograph from
performance, Los Angeles, 1973.

“21st Century Odyssey: Norway,”
photograph from performance, 1991.

“21st Century Odyssey: London,”
photograph from performance, 1991.

“21st Century Odyssey: Hero's Goodbye,”
photograph from performance, 1991.
Although arguably rooted in tribal rituals and religious and civic pageantry, performance art entered the modern era tied to experimentations by dissident writers, musicians and visual artists in the Futurist, Constructivist and Surrealist movements. The Abstract Expressionists’ emphasis on gesture, conceptualists’ privileging of ideas over products, feminists’ validation of personal narrative and the popularization of self activation practices of Gestalt therapy all influenced performance art as it became codified into an effective medium of expression by 1970.

At that time Barbara T. Smith was an MFA student at U.C. Irvine. She and cohorts Nancy Buchanan, Chris Burden and others founded F-Space, the experimental art gallery where she launched her career as a performance artist (it was also where Burden’s notorious “Shoot” was staged). Smith had completed her undergraduate studies in painting, art history and religion at Pomona College in 1953. Married, with children, she continued to paint, and began making books with a rented Xerox 914 copy machine that she realized had potential as a populist means of communication.

Smith collaged photographs of herself and her three children, impressions of portions of her body, and articles of clothing into her self-published Xeroxed books. Titles like “Broken Heart,” “Bond,” “Undies” and “Do Not Touch” suggest the personal nature of her subject matter. As her marriage disintegrated in the late 1960s, autobiography and the creation of community by means of interaction with her audience became central to Smith’s art. The themes she began to explore, “the body, food, nurturing, female desire, heterosexual relationships, sexuality, religion, spiritual transformation, love, and death,” asserts Rebecca McGrew, co-curator of this retrospective, “are as primal, as profoundly relevant today as they were when introduced.”

Mounting an exhibition highlighting pivotal performances from Smith’s productive career had to have been an enormous task. Preparatory notes, drawings, diagrams, photographs, performance relics and ephemera covering nearly three decades of work had to be located, restored, documented, classified and prepared for display. The show focuses on eight of Smith’s cardinal performances, beginning with “Ritual Meal” (1969) and including “Celebration of the Holy Squash” (1971), “Feed Me” (1973), “Birthdaze” (1981) and “The 21st Century Odyssey” (1991- 1993). In order to enhance the examination of time-based, collaborative events and fleeting actions that resist replication, digital prints were made from film stills and slides, and 8mm films were transferred to video. A grant from the Durfee Foundation allowed Smith to work with Kate Johnson of EZTV on the production of a video documentation of the most recent and fully examined work in the show, “21st Century Odyssey.”

Smith set up a role reversal in this epic performance, becoming a female Odysseus, organizing a journey to faraway sites from India to Norway (where she entered into the mythology of her personal ancestry in a journey paralleling Odysseus’ trip into the Underworld). Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz of The Electronic Café International, set up communications between Smith and her partner, Dr. Roy Walford, a medical officer sealed in Biosphere 2 who became the male counterpart of Penelope. In an essay written for High Performance in 1987, Smith eerily predicted concerns she would carry on her Odyssey, including threats to life on the planet “that made the link between feminism, spirituality and ecology an obvious one,” and pleas for “the widespread recognition of the need and desire for an entirely new perception and method of living--capturing the power of the sun.”

Interlacing video projections with ephemera from the performances allows viewers’ to come closer to experiencing the cyclical and transformative nature of Smith’s work. But it is the catalog essays that enrich materials available in the gallery and compel deeper deliberation. Jennie Klein elaborates on Smith’s role as shaman. Kristine Stiles analyzes the artist’s pull towards nourishment and death, while Jenni Sorkin counters with insights on parody. Moria Roth’s re-visitation of a 1974 interview with Smith prompts additional analysis of the significance of Smith’s work in view of past and current artistic practices. “Feed Me” begs to be examined in the light of Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” (1964), or Janine Antoni’s “Gnaws” (1992). Ono kneeled silently on a concert hall stage, inviting members of the audience to approach one at a time to use the scissors placed on the floor in front of her to cut off bits of her clothing. Antoni “re-sculpted” Minimalist cubes of lard and chocolate by chewing and spitting out their corners. Smith sat nude on a mattress all night, surrounded by food, beverages, body oils, perfume, books, etc. admonishing audience members, privately, one at a time, to “feed” her.

This retrospective of Barbara T. Smith’s distinguished body of performance art work provides us with this and a great deal more to digest.