Body & Soul

Los Angeles performance pioneer Barbara T. Smith on her early life and radical art

Smith wearing a gas mask during the production of Field Piece, 1971. Courtesy the artist and The Box, Los Angeles. Photo: Boris Sojka

  • Feb 17, 2023
  • Ursula: Issue 7

At sunset on the evening of April 20, 1973, one of the most powerful and important pieces of performance work ever undertaken by an American artist began in an unassuming setting: the women’s restroom at the Museum of Conceptual Art in San Francisco.

Barbara T. Smith, then forty-three years old, a divorced mother of three and a latecomer to the West Coast contemporary art world, went into the room, undressed, and arranged wine, cheese, bread, tea, coffee, marijuana, books and other items on benches. The room was otherwise empty, save for a mattress, flat on the floor and covered in an Oriental rug, and a tape machine in a corner, playing a repeating loop of Smith’s voice softly saying the words, “Feed me, feed me.”

Over the next twelve hours, until sunrise the following day, a single visitor at a time was allowed to enter the room and be alone with Smith, the nature of the encounter left completely unspecified. While the work shares similarities, particularly in its exploration of vulnerability, with Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, first performed in 1964, and Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0, performed the year after Smith’s, those two well-known pieces took place in public, with sizable crowds watching the actions of the participants (mostly men) who interacted with Ono and Abramović’s bodies and clothing, sometimes menacingly. Feed Me, in contrast, consisted of a series of interactions for audiences of one, the only documentation of which was a small journal that Smith kept through the night and a handful of black-and-white photos taken before the performance began. The entire piece transpired inside the restroom.

Even in the context of its freewheeling times, the performance immediately became notorious, largely due to Smith’s intentional structure, one that engendered speculation, hearsay, imagination and mystery. What had taken place between the artist and her visitors, nineteen in all, most of them men? Why had she chosen such a private format for a public performance? Was Smith ever in danger, like her friend Chris Burden, whom she had watched two years earlier take a bullet to the arm, for his landmark performance Shoot?

In a 2019 self-published artist’s book, What You Need to Know, Smith finally decided to answer some of these questions, partly, as she wrote, because of lingering perceptions that Feed Me had “played right into the misogyny of patriarchy.” The piece, she insisted, did precisely the opposite. It was a radical feminist action that reversed the mechanism of the male gaze, turning the sexual and gender dynamics of the day on their head. “Of all the women who did pieces of this sort, making themselves available for the actions upon them by an audience, mine was the only one during which I had agency and control,” she wrote. The intimacy and complete openness that Smith offered compelled her visitors, often despite themselves, to “face their projections and see me as a person, not an object,” making them into temporary companions who satisfied the profoundly human request that her recorded voice intoned. As documented in Smith’s journal, most of the visitors that night sat and talked with her about life, love and art; occasionally lectured or criticized her; ate and drank with her; shared drugs with her; sometimes held or massaged her and, in a couple of instances, had sex with her.

Among the pioneers of body-focused performance and Conceptual art in the 1960s and 1970s, Smith has never achieved the degree of recognition she deserves—for many of the usual reasons, including sexism and East-Coast bias—and Feed Me, even now, remains more a cult piece than a canonized one. But her work has gained importance with each passing decade, especially for young artists, and her reputation now seems poised for much greater institutional visibility. In February 2023, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles will open a career-spanning survey, “Barbara T. Smith: The Way to Be,” exploring her forays into drawing, painting, Xerox printing, sculpture, performance, artist’s books and film.

Smith, who turned ninety-one this year, sat for a series of interviews about her early life and work, conducted over several days in her apartment in Pasadena, not far from where she was raised. These are edited and condensed excerpts of those conversations. —Randy Kennedy

Barbara T. Smith with Field Piece , 1971. Photo: Boris Sojka. Courtesy the artist and The Box, Los Angeles

Barbara T. Smith, Field Piece, 1971. Courtesy the artist and The Box, Los Angeles. A sculptural remnant of Field Piece resides in the collection of the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photo: Boris Sojka

“My mother would say, “Shh, shh, don’t wake your father. He was out late last night.” I never wondered what he was doing, but of course he was picking up bodies. That’s what the mortician does.”—Barbara T. Smith

Randy Kennedy: Where would you like to start?

Barbara T. Smith: I guess I’m always pretty good at starting at the beginning.

RK: I know that your roots here in Pasadena and Altadena are deep. Did both of your parents grow up here?

BTS: Yes, California people going way back. My dad was born in Huntington Memorial Hospital, just five minutes away from here. As was I. And my younger brother, George, and two of my children. So it’s like old home. I should go to the hospital and do some kind of ceremony or performance there. My mother was the child of immigrant Norwegians who had settled in Hollywood. My paternal grandfather came to northern California from Marshalltown, Iowa, from a family of farmers, some of whom went West for the dry air, as I understand it, because of tuberculosis. He eventually came to Los Angeles and got together with a guy named Hamilton Stevens and they started a mortuary.

RK: How did that come about, for someone with a farm background?

BTS: I think my grandfather had at some point trained or thought about being in the ministry. One day I asked my father, who followed my grandfather into the business: “Why are you a mortician? Why would anybody do that?” And he said, “Well, this is where people are in their greatest despair. It’s a chance to help people.” I think that’s the way my grandfather was, too. He was a very kindly person. So that was their motivation. But it was also a good business, of course. I was born in 1931, the middle of the Depression, but the Depression didn’t seem to have any impact on the family or the business.

RK: I guess people keep dying during depressions. Maybe even more of them. You don’t really have a choice.

BTS: I never had any sense of lack. When automobiles were first happening, my father had an early Lincoln, a big box sort of thing, then he got a big Cadillac, which was a company car, used to transport mourners to the cemetery.

RK: It must have been a strange family profession for a young person to think about.

BTS: When I was young, my mother would say, “Shh, shh, don’t wake your father. He was out late last night.” I never wondered what he was doing, but of course he was picking up bodies. That’s what the mortician does.

RK: Did you spend time around the funeral home?

BTS: Not really as a child. But when I got older, my brother and I would go on the bus, from school, maybe to a department store to shop and then end up at his shuffled off to my dad’s office and more or less told to stay put, but of course we didn’t.

RK: You probably had some sense of what was going on there, right?

BTS: A little. We would walk down the hallway to the embalming rooms and we’d open the doors. Fortunately, we never actually saw a body in one. And there were also places called slumber rooms, where the body rests in a casket for viewing. Once we played around in the chapel. There was a casket sitting at the end of an aisle, so we decided we’d play funeral. My friend Shirley sat at the organ and George got up in the pulpit and started preaching and I became the family member in mourning, pretending to weep. I walked up to the casket, lifted the lid and there was a body inside, of course. I screamed and said, “There’s someone here!” And everyone heard us and came in and we ran out.

RK: What a story.

“When I was young, I would get very angry about injustice, but not enough to be an activist. There was no such thing, really, in the world in which I lived.”—Smith

BTS: Well, I mean, every family has some kind of weird thing that the kids discover by chance, right? This was just weirder than average, I guess. My family also founded a cemetery, which still exists, north of El Monte, called Live Oak. We used to joke that it was called Live Oak for Dead Folk. [Laughter.]

RK: I’d think that having a family in the mortuary business must have had some effect on the way you thought about objects and ceremony and the body, right?

BTS: In a way, I guess. Not overtly. Maybe more than I realize. I was also around quite a lot of cultural things when I was young. My grandparents and my father helped found the Pasadena Playhouse, and my father acted in plays. He was also involved in the [Pasadena parade known as the] Tournament of Roses. My grandfather had been a president of the tournament and a grand marshal. I have pictures of him on his horse with his top hat, riding in the parade.

RK: Did you have a good childhood?

BTS: I really did, as far as I knew. We lived in Altadena and I went to the public schools and I was good in school and well-liked. But I was also very naive and my world was very small. I read Look and Life magazines, nothing ever more out-of-the-ordinary than that, and I went to the movies and saw the newsreels. But I didn’t know much about the wider world. I certainly knew nothing about art or the art world and there really wasn’t much of one here in the 1940s, early ’50s. I didn’t even know what an artist was or what they did. I was interested in anthropology, paleontology, though I had no idea how to pursue that.

RK: Did you conceive of yourself at any point when you were in school as a rebel? Because later in your art life, obviously, you pushed against a lot of boundaries and became radicalized. Was that in your constitution when you were young?

BTS: When I was young, I would get very angry about injustice, but not enough to be an activist. There was no such thing, really, in the world in which I lived. But at the same time, I had a very strong personality. I had a certain amount of self-confidence and I did well in most things that I tried. I got into both Stanford and Pomona, and I decided to go to Pomona only because it was closer, because I had no idea about the relative merit of the schools or anything like that. And I still remember vividly the first day at Pomona, what happened. My mom drove me out and at the freshman dorm there was a very routine event that happened every year, some kind of tradition. All the freshman girls had to go up and be weighed and measured by the boys in public, for our suitability as dates, I guess, a kind of comic event.

RK: As if you were cattle at auction or something?

BTS: My mother was a bit bewildered, and I guess I had no idea that this was a bad thing. So I just submitted to it. Isn’t that awful? But that was the kind of thing that happened.

Barbara T. Smith, Xerox, Coffin: Chaotic Attractor, 1965–66. Courtesy the artist and The Box, Los Angeles. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio

Barbara T. Smith, Memo Pad, 1965. Courtesy the artist and The Box, Los Angeles. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio

RK: I read one interview in which you talked about a split with your family happening over an early boyfriend, a confrontation that led to a kind of awakening.

BTS: Yes, it was the major thing that shaped my life at that time. It was an awakening in part about my dad, because I just adored him and he was big and fun. I was very much a father’s daughter, which I later learned in therapy is bit incestuous, emotionally. I was seeing a boy two years older than I was, a football player, a really good person, a good guy, Ed Miller.

RK: What was your family’s problem with him?

BTS: For one thing, we were Presbyterians and he was Catholic, big time. His parents ran a liquor store and the family lived in the back of the store. They envisioned me having six babies right away, I’m sure. I would have these big fights, fighting with my mother, and finally they just broke me. I yelled at my mother, “I can’t fight anymore. I don’t care anymore.” And my mother slapped me in the face and she said, “You’d better care.” It’s the only time she ever did anything like that. The breaking point came when my dad, on the phone with me at one point said, “I never thought I’d have to say this to you. But if you ever go out with Ed Miller again, you’re not to consider yourself my daughter.” It just stunned me. It cemented some things in my mind about how desire and sexuality were really tied up with rebellion, especially if you were a woman. There was a sense in which I couldn’t really go home again, which was probably good for me.

RK: Pomona, where you were studying, later became a tremendous hotbed of Los Angeles experimentation. What did going there do for you?

BTS: This was the late ’40s, early ’50s, and so it was really all about Abstract Expressionism and painting at the time. I was really struggling psychologically and I was young and my paintings were very labored. But there was a really good painting teacher—and painter—there, James Grant, and also a great art history teacher, Alois J. Schardt, who had been the director of the National Gallery in Berlin before being forced out by the Nazis. He knew many of the German Expressionists personally, and he himself was a kind of Catholic mystic. He was, to this day, one of the best historians I’ve ever heard talk about art. On Good Friday, he would do a two- or three-hour lecture just about the Isenheim Altarpiece. You’d be sitting there crying.

RK: Wow.

BTS: Jim Grant and Schardt taught me some very important things. Once, I talked to Grant about wanting to take extra classes at Scripps College to learn technique, specific skills for painting and sculpting, and he said it was fine by him but also told me, “Learning techniques is not going to make you an artist. If you really want to be an artist, nothing in the world will stop you.” And that just hit me. Around that time, I had become seriously depressed because of what had happened with my family. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t read. I was nearly passing out in gym classes. I couldn’t even eat. And I’m in one of Dr. Shardt’s classes, sitting in the front row because he’s German and his accent is really hard to understand. He was showing Dürer’s Melencolia I etching, with the figure sitting in a dark room and the fading sunlight very far away, and he said, “Many of you will find yourself in this state of mind.” And I thought, “How does he know?” And then he said, “The problem is that you spend all your time trying to fight it. God does not give you anything you cannot endure. Stop fighting.” And it was like a huge weight was taken off me, to realize I should stop fighting because it wasn’t going to make anything better. For the first time, I went outside and I could feel the sun and I was in tears. I remember I went back to my room and I was reading Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and for the first time I could read and really enjoy it. It’s amazing, these things that happen, the huge effect certain people have on you.

RK: You were married before you graduated, right?

BTS: Yes, Allen Smith proposed my junior year and we got married because he was “perfect.” He was from a wealthy family, and he had gone to boarding schools. That’s why my family had sent me off to college. Not really for the education but to find a husband. I was pregnant with my son, Rick, before we graduated. And then we went to Georgia for two years because my husband was in the R.O.T.C., at Fort Benning. We come back to California and I have my daughter, Julie, and we’re living in Arcadia up near the foothills in a beautiful ranch-style house and I should be happy, but I just feel like I’m in someone else’s play, having all the parties and being social. I finally tell Allen that I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but either I’m crazy or the whole world is crazy. I decided to walk down the street to see a guy who I knew was a therapist. And I knock on the door and his wife comes to the door in bathrobe and curlers. I just say, “I live up the street and I understand your husband’s a therapist. And I have come to see if he can help me.” And she says, very calmly, “Well, he probably can.” And so that’s how I started therapy, which was just mind-blowing to me, with a wonderful therapist named Robert Hinshaw.

Barbara T. Smith, Pink, 1965. Xerox prints, 39 x 27 in. (100 x 70 cm). Photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio. Courtesy the artist and The Box, Los Angeles

RK: What did it do for you?

BTS: For one, I think it was when I understood that I wanted to be an artist. Not what my husband thought, a kind of Sunday painter, but a real artist. I tried to get Allen to go to therapy with me, but he wouldn’t. It was just too threatening to him. Around that time I decided to start volunteering at the Pasadena Art Museum. Hinshaw knew someone there and made a call and it helped me get included there. Tom Leavitt was the director and then Walter Hopps came on board and it was a pretty wonderful place to be, at a wonderful time. There was the Duchamp retrospective and the very first Pop Art exhibition in a museum [“New Painting of Common Objects”] and Frank Stella’s first show. We hosted a party at our house during the Duchamp exhibition and Rauschenberg came and had too much to drink and fell, or maybe jumped, into our koi pond in his suit, which was velvet, and I had to dry it with a hair dryer.

RK: Was Hopps a formative person in your life?

BTS: Yes, but really more as a friend. The museum itself was such an accessible place. When they did the Pop Art show in particular, the West Coast Pop artists all hung around and I got to know them and become friends—Ruscha and Joe Goode and Robert Dowd, those guys. I had a chance to talk art. And I learned that I could hold my own with them. That I’d had a great education. I didn’t have to prove anything, at least as far as talking went.

RK: Were you beginning to make art?

BTS: Well, I had started doing some writing that was very intense. I remember one time in particular at a beach house we had in Laguna. And I started writing furiously, a kind of re-interpretation of the Adam and Eve myth, which I felt that everyone had always gotten wrong and that I had a new perspective on. We were driving home and Allen started talking to me and I said, “Don’t talk, please, because something is writing itself in my mind.” And we got home and I rushed in and started writing. I was in a state, and I’m sure he thought I was crazy. It was a fairy tale about an enchanted princess who had an evil mother. It was a myth about my life, and writing it was a true spiritual awakening. What I understood after looking back at it was that it was me giving structure to my family as a fairy-tale or a myth, and in some sense, it led to a very deep forgiveness of my family. The writing was important. After that, instead of having to wonder what I would paint, all of these ideas just kept flooding through my head and I responded with art.

RK: The Black Glass Paintings then came along in 1965 and you considered them to be among your first mature pieces.

BTS: Right, they were paintings that were really mirrors. But they made you think they were paintings, made you approach them as paintings, because the frames signified “painting.” They were black, or primarily black, surfaces under 3/8-inch glass, reflecting you and your surroundings, forcing you to be aware of yourself and the world out here, outside the paintings. I had my first studio in Eagle Rock then and after I made the paintings I decided to go back to school, to Chouinard [now CalArts], because I really thought the paintings were something that no one had quite done before, that they were quite hot. I believed in them so much that I began to get worried that I was self-deceived and that I needed to find out. Walter Hopps told me that no one had really done anything quite like them except maybe Pistoletto, who was working with mirrors in a different way. Of course, much later, in the 1980s and afterward, Gerhard Richter made his monochrome mirror paintings.

RK: Was this also around the time that you began experimenting with the Xerox machine? Can you talk about how that came to be?

BTS: It began because I had gone to the great Gemini print shop [Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles] to see if I could make a print with them. I wasn’t going there to learn how to make a print but actually to do one. And they said, “Well, it’s customary for artists whom we work with to have gallery representation.” Basically, I wasn’t well enough known for them. And they added, “Besides, we’re busy working with Josef Albers right now.” They were brushing me off, and I was so angry, and I thought, “What they do is passé anyway. I’m going to figure out what the printmaking technology of our time is.” I’d read about Xerox machines. And it turned out that Xerox technology was unique and completely new. And so I just called the company and leased one with some money I’d gotten after my father’s death. And I put it in the dining room.

Smith during the performance Feed Me, 1973. Courtesy the artist and The Box, Los Angeles. Photo: Dick Kilgroe

People waiting to access Smith’s performance Feed Me, 1973. Courtesy the artist and The Box, Los Angeles. Photo: Dick Kilgroe

RK: What did your family think about it?

BTS: I think the kids just thought, “Oh, that’s Mom’s thing. A weird grown-up thing.” I knew, because I’d had training in printing, that what I was doing was technologically innovative, that it was right for its time. But really what also happened was that I became obsessed with the machine, with putting my face on it and my body on it, which I’d have to do when no one was home, getting up and sitting on it. Everything it did was so immediate, you could just embody your ideas with no delay at all. I had a poetic analogy in my mind that it was like a salt cellar at the bottom of the sea cranking out salt, and it won’t stop. The salt is endless. It sort of frightened me. I told Allen, “I don’t know how to make this stop. What’ll I do?” And he said, “Just call them up and tell them to come get the machine.” That’s what I finally had to do. And what was happening in the middle of all of this was that my marriage was coming apart. That eventually happened, and we divorced in 1968. I ended up losing custody of the children and it was the most painful time in my life, almost unbearable.

RK: Did making art seem like a refuge in those years, or maybe a way to think through or express that grief?

BTS: I don’t know, but it was all I had. The artists I knew were like my family. I was living in my house all by myself for a while. And then I went to study at UC Irvine and became part of the group of artists who formed F-Space Gallery in Santa Ana, including Chris Burden and Nancy Buchanan.

RK: How did F-Space come about?

BTS: It was an industrial space that a group of us, about six of us, rented because some of the things we were doing, that we wanted to do, our performances, were things we just knew we couldn’t do on campus because of the extremity and the content of some of them, nudity and things like that. At F-Space in 1972 I did Nude Frieze [a performance and installation in which naked participants were briefly suspended from walls with reinforced duct tape and Smith, sitting atop a high stool, directed the action] and that same year The Fisherman IS the Fish [a performance in which Smith’s naked, painted, body served as a kind of projection screen]. And Chris did Shoot there the year before.

"After Feed Me was over, I was completely spent, exhausted for days. But I felt that through the piece I had somehow regained parts of myself I thought I had lost for good, or some parts that I maybe never had to begin with."—Smith

RK: I have to ask what it was like to have been part of the audience for that.

BTS: The word “audience” isn’t really correct for those kinds of performances. It’s more like witnesses. You have a feeling of responsibility when you’re at certain performances, especially one like that. I recorded the sound and took pictures that evening. There were about seven or eight of us present and we all knew about it ahead of time and Chris told us we could decide whether we wanted to be there or not. It was scheduled to start at 7 p.m. and at about 7:20 we locked the door so no one else could come in. And suddenly I’m realizing that he could really be hurt or killed. But not a single person there asked him to stop, because that was just not the right thing to do. It felt kind of like we held his life in our hands, the connection was so real. The bullet was supposed to just graze him but it got more of the arm and went through muscle. And then we realized that no one had brought a first-aid kit and Alfred Lutjeans had one in his car and ran out and got it.

RK: It’s always seemed to me that Feed Me, in the realm of body-focused performance work in those years, was fully as radical as Shoot, maybe more so because you did it alone and it wasn’t filmed or recorded. And in the same way that Burden controlled the parameters of what was inflicted upon his body, you were in control in that room, in a way that most people didn’t really understand. How did the idea for the piece come about?

BTS: Part of it came from my anger about how I was being treated in those years by men. Everywhere I went, if I traveled by myself, I was always being followed, hit on, hustled, harassed. And it made me furious that I felt that I had to tamp down my personal energy as a woman and dress differently, in a way that made me feel like a nun, just to have some peace. I was fed up. And when I had the chance to be part of a program at the Museum of Conceptual Art in San Francisco, the circumstances were perfect. The room I could use was, after all, the women’s room. It was intimate and small. What I was trying to do in there was in part to say, “The way people treat me, it’s like the only thing that I’m good for is a screw, a fuck.” And there are so many other ways that I wanted to be able to interact with another person, to have a connection. And so I had things in the room that reflected the various ways you can interact with someone, nurturing things— wine and cheese and other food. There were body oils and books and you could make coffee or play a record, play music. My voice on the tape loop saying, “Feed me,” could be taken as a request or a command.

RK: Were you ever scared or intimidated by the men, or the women, who came in?

BTS: I wasn’t at all. I was completely centered when I did it and I knew that I could do it, that I wanted to go through with it. I wasn’t controlling the visitors, because of course they could say or do whatever they wanted. They could even get negative or aggressive. But I was guiding, in a certain way, by what was available in the room and by my behavior, what was going to happen. After it was over, I was completely spent, exhausted for days. But I felt that through the piece I had somehow regained parts of myself I thought I had lost for good, or some parts that I maybe never had to begin with. I had claimed my own territory. I knew it was a very good piece, an important piece. So much of my work is about validating the physical body in real space and real time. That’s what the Black Glass Paintings were about, that’s what the Xerox works were about and so much that came after—that we live in a physical world, in addition to the mental, which we overemphasize. And what happens to us bodily often means more than we can comprehend.

Barbara T. Smith: The Way to Be,” an autobiographical survey of Smith's career, opens at the Getty Research Institute on February 28 and continues through July 16.

Barbara T. Smith: Treasures” opens March 11 at The Box, Los Angeles.