Barbara Smith’s memoir The Way To Be covers the first 50 years of her life, from her first artistic experiments with Xerox in the 1960s to her involvement in the California performance art scene during the ‘70s. It also tells the story of her divorce, estrangement from her children, and the personal and sexual relationships that shaped her work. Smith’s work has never reached the prominence of some of her peers and collaborators, and The Way To Be gives an insight into why. Every time Smith seems to be on the verge of a breakthrough into greater recognition, or at least financial security, the messy realities of being a working artist get in the way. She sinks money into her work, loses her studio spaces, takes short-term teaching jobs that barely cover the cost of living, and struggles to get along with the power players who could ease her career woes. Smith never seeks pity; her frankness is compelling, and her refusal to conform to expectation is magnetic.
The writing is, at times, unpolished — Smith tends to list events and encounters of all kinds with equal importance, and it’s often frustrating to read anecdotes that go nowhere or meet new characters who disappear a paragraph later. Her style is intimate and confessional. The section devoted to her first trip to Europe is feverishly weird. As Smith reels from the loss of her children, she attempts to travel alone, and the chapter mostly focuses on a list of increasingly violent sexual encounters, culminating in rape. It’s also one of the most evocative chapters, where her mental state is clearest and functions as a kind of radicalizing pivot for the book: the vulnerability Smith feels while traveling alone throws the gendered violence of the world into focus.
The chapter on Field Piece (1968–1972) is revealing and engaging. Smith narrates the process of making the 180 translucent fiberglass ‘blades’ that form the installation, lit from within, alongside her professionally and romantically fraught relationship with then-boyfriend motorcycle racer and maker Dick Kilgroe as she learns to construct the rods and wire the lights that illuminate them. Throughout, Smith struggles with the assumptions of others, but mostly the men she works with, who insist that the work is “a forest of cocks,” the technicians who refuse to follow her instructions and damage several of the rods, even an awkward meeting with conceptual artist Bruce Nauman, who asks if it was all “worth it.” Field Piece is arguably Smith’s most ambitious work in scale and resources, although it was damaged due to both neglect and vandalism; only a small section, 16 out of 180 rods, survives.
With performances like Feed Me (1973), which featured Smith sitting on a mattress in a bathroom and receiving visitors one by one throughout the night, she makes herself vulnerable and available to the desires of others, but only if the interaction “feeds” her in some way. She has sex with some participants, refuses it with others, makes requests of her visitors, and receives support from friends and collaborators throughout the event. Feed Me does not break into violence, at least partly because of the more active role that Smith takes — unlike Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0, first performed a year later in 1974, Smith is explicitly in control and directs the encounters.
Paul McCarthy, Judy Chicago, Martha Rosler, Chris Burden, Suzanne Lacy, and others appear in Smith’s anecdotes, and their cameos show her proximity to the power players of the art world. The book describes Chicago’s ability to work within institutional frameworks in a way that Smith never manages, creating tension between the two artists. Another thread of Smith’s career that becomes clear through The Way To Be is her delicate relationship with the rest of the feminist art movement. Smith is positioned on the edge, in her view, because of the assertiveness of her sexuality and the prominence of her relationships with men in her work. Smith writes about the importance of addressing a male audience rather than a total rejection of it — she is left cold by the “cunt art” of some of her peers, comparing it unfavorably to the machismo art it sought to rebuke. Her position between the two camps troubles her — she writes expressively about the misogynist violence that underlies the world, which is also present in her relationships. She struggles to make work that is provocative and bold without harming herself and her audience.
Both despite and because of its roughness, The Way To Be is an evocative memoir. Smith’s willingness to lay herself bare to her audience and her ability to reckon with her uncertainty makes her a compelling (if at times erratic) narrator. Smith is now in her 90s and receiving some of the recognition she is due at last, partly due to the acquisition of her archive by Getty (which published The Way To Be). A great part of the appeal is her unfinishedness: this is the story of an artist learning to live.
The Way To Be (2023) by Barbara T. Smith is published by the Getty Research Institute and is available online and in independent bookstores.