BY Sohrab Mohebbi in Reviews | 15 JUN 13
Featured in
Issue 156

Barbara T. Smith

BY Sohrab Mohebbi in Reviews | 15 JUN 13

Barbara T. Smith, Pink, 1965, Xerox prints, 1.5 × 1 m

As the story goes, one day in 1965, Barbara T. Smith decided to produce a lithograph: a rubbing of a gravestone transferred to a lithography stone with a daffodil in the middle, so that the resulting print would be a ‘stone sandwich with a sprouting flower in between’. Rejected by the now-legendary print house Gemini G.E.L., she concluded that lithography was an outdated technology and decided to use the 20th-century print media of the photocopy machine. Smith thus leased a 914 Xerox and parked it in her living room for eight months, developing an extensive body of artist books and framed pieces, now on view for the first time in 40 years in the exhibition ‘XEROX: Barbara T. Smith 1965–1966’.

For the duration of her lease of the copier, Smith’s studio was her living room, and she placed everything on its glass plate, from paintings, collages, photographs of her children and husband to her actual children, catalogues, magazines, objects and her own body – naked and clothed – in various positions. She even asked her husband to make love on the copier. The glass plate couldn’t survive the weight of two bodies so her idea was to ‘have [their] genitals transferred as image to paper, by running the papers through twice’. Her husband refused, and Smith’s recourse was to make love to the machine herself, producing a series of erotic imagery of her masturbating with the copier.

Mostly known for her work as a performance artist and co-founder of F-Space in Santa Ana, Smith at the time was primarily a painter. Yet, some of the pieces in the show could be considered precursors of Smith’s later work. Her 1972 Nude Frieze, for which she taped male and female nudes on the white walls of F-Space, is reminiscent of the way that the copier captures the artist’s nude body on paper. The 40 artist books produced with the copier, known as the ‘Coffin’ series (1965–6), are paper obsequies of a bygone time (a colleague of Smith’s referrers to them as fossils) presented in casket-like displays. Later, in Piercing the Corporate Veil (1980), Smith installed a coffin in the middle of the gallery to fast and meditate in.

Contemporaneous with the so-called grand transformation from industrial labour to the immaterial labour of the service and cultural industries, Smith provides a commentary on workplace performance in post-industrial capitalism. By bringing a business machine into the domestic space and turning her living room into an artist studio/office, she underlines housework as affective labour and highlights its position within the conditions of production of the time. Her palette becomes the material of housework, which she places on the photocopier, juxtaposing her work as an artist and that of a stay-at-home mother. Childcare, housekeeping, flour, rice and cornmeal – all on the glass plate of the Xerox machine. A work such as Take That Warhol! (1965–6) includes copies of Campbell’s Soup cans in various combinations on two yellow papers in the middle, and two black and white copies on the sides with the hand of the artist superimposed with can lids. The work re-appropriates the can of soup as a household medium while also pointing to industrial mass production as recuperated by Pop.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating pieces in the exhibition is an 11-page Coffin titled In Self Defense, which reads ‘thought you might like to see some of my work on the Xerox machine’, and is spread into the centre of the pages. Worried that a New York artist might steal her idea, Smith describes the book as a letter sent to friends in the art world ‘as a form of claim that by demonstrating what I was doing was also claiming it as my own territory’. The book explores questions of originality, with one of the pages including a ruler and the words ‘copy, copy, unique’ written on photocopies of the artist’s hands. The book also includes a full-page image of an eye, pictures of her children, anatomical sections, flowers and a tangled lace ribbon. On page 11, we see drawings of a boy and a girl with the words ‘open work’ at the bottom, perhaps pointing to both the book itself as a work in progress, open to interpretation, while also underlining the expansive and fluid nature of housework and labour of care. Smith signs the letter: ‘sincerely, resident manager.’

Sohrab Mohebbi is the Kathe and Jim Patrinos Curator of the 58th Carnegie International. He also serves as curator-at-large at SculptureCenter in New York, and in 2022, was appointed Director of SculptureCenter.