In New York the weather is still inclement, cold. The sky is blue but the wind is very strong in the Lower East Side of Manhattan where I go to visit the artist Kiki Smith in her townhouse studio. The front door is painted bright red. I ring the bell and a young assistant wearing fitted black trousers and a black jumper greets me. I hear the voice of Kiki as she waits for me on the second floor in a large room painted in light colours. On the floor there is a large work in progress. Kiki is dressed like her assistant, with black trousers and a dark jumper. She still has long grey hair, maybe now a little shorter. She has lost weight and she asks me if I want some tea. Then we sit down in front of one another around a table.
“I live in the city half of my time. I teach print making here on Fridays, at Columbia University. At the moment I have a show of sculptures, tapestries and some glass paintings with gold leaf behind them at the Pace Gallery in New York. Since my show opened I have been doing jewellery with the help of a girl that works with me.”
Where do you work?
On a plastic folding table because you can put it away. I also work on the floor. Once I had a studio but I hated it. I like working at home. I need the right time to have the work going and I usually stay at home at night. In the country, where I spend half of my time, I have to keep the house going but I am not very domestic. I like laundry but not to wash dishes, I don’t find it interesting.
Do you have to travel a lot?
Sometimes, mainly for work. In the last six years I went five times per year to Germany because I work there in a stained glass factory. Sometimes I go to Italy. I like it more than I did when I was younger. I was suspicious of people enjoying lunch too much. Now I have some American friends who live outside Florence that I visit. I was working in a foundry in Florence and I have a gallery in Rome, Lorcan O’Neill.
But which is your favourite place?
Home. To stay in my home and work. I like monastic life. Get up, do some yoga, go to the foundry then go to a movie. I like to have a single purposed activity in a given place. In New York there is too much information, too many e-mails. I like to be concentrated in my work. I also enjoy having a private life separate from my life as an artist.
Do you find it difficult for a woman to be an artist?
I don’t think it is difficult to be an artist. It is a great gift and a pleasure that you take for yourself. It is an activity that you have to do.
Your art is quite multifaceted?
I am attracted to the variety of forms that exist and I am curious to have lots of experiences.
What do you do?
Drawings, prints, sculptures, videos, photographs; and I make tapestry. I just go where I want. I follow where the work wants to go.
What kind of an artist are you?
I do not need to position myself or to define myself in any ideological way. Creativity is just the capacity of consciousness. It is a way to synthesize. It is a good language to ground your consciousness in a condensed manner that you can see physically outside yourself. It is like an evidence. I am not the most self-reflecting person. I am more just voracious.
Is your work changing over the years?
The basic way of making things is similar to how I made things in all my life. I make changes depending on the changes in my life.
Are you interested in the work of other artists? Do you find New York a creative place?
New York has a high concentration of people expressing themselves. That is why people come here, to be in community with one another. I suppose that now that I live in the country I see less and less people but we try to keep in contact. I like all different artists and I am inspired by what artists do now and by what they did.
(Two assistants, both dressed in black trousers and black jumper, come into the room. Kiki says to me about them, “They are running the show.” They want to know Kiki’s opinion about some photographs and then the assistants look around on the floor for some drawings and they put some white paper on the floor. Then the phone rings and they go away.)
Kiki tells me, “In my life everyone teaches me something. Sometimes I don’t listen, sometimes I have to learn the hard way. Going back to other people’s works, I remember that I went to see the Apocalypse Tapestries in Angers in 1976. It is one of the great things that happened in my life. When I was a kid Picasso’s Guernica was still at MoMA and there I saw the Oceanic prints on cloth by Matisse and then Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I went to Colmar five times to see the Isenheim Altar by Grünewald. I like lots of things. I have a lot of space for appreciation. Talking about contemporary artists, I like Rob Voerman, Peter Buggenhout, Nancy Spero and Leon Golub, who are dead but they had great influence on me. I also like Pat Steir.
Do you like to visit Museums?
I love it. I go a lot when I am in Germany. I am also attracted by what they call ‘decorative art’. I am less into books or music. I like to read reference books about history, history of women’s life. I find fantastic the tapestries by Jean Lurçat made after the war in answer to the Apocalypse Tapestries that I mentioned before. They are very strange. In the same way for me, I really like Chagall, especially as a stained glass painter, because he uses abstraction and he is very graphic at the same time.
Now you seem to be involved in tapestry?
I love tapestry, I think they are holy and it is like a blanket. It buffers the world, makes a cushion between you and the world. Mine are woven on Jacquard looms, which gives you a different possibility than traditional hand woven tapestry. I have a couple exposed now at the Pace Gallery. I have made nine so far.
Drawing is still an important side of your work?
Yes, and for tapestry I make an original drawing, then lithograph and then a collage and then the colour.
Colour is new in your work?
Tapestry affords me to work densely with colour and I like it.
(Some assistants come back and ask questions. Kiki takes her iPad to show me some pictures and a tapestry by Raphael.)
Do you find success important?
Being successful has afforded me a great many experiences and opportunities that I would not have had otherwise.
What about the star system in art?
That is not my central interest being an artist.
Do you collect art?
Yes, I have works of other artists that I traded or bought. I have the work of my father, Tony Smith, a sculptor, and of my sister Seton Smith, a photographer. I like living with art. I like to learn from others. I don’t need to look at my own work after I did it.
But you keep it?
I keep all the editions, I keep an artist proof for myself. I throw away tons of my work.
Do you consider that we live in a good period for the arts?
Art is something beneficial to the world and I think in general is part of our recognition of being here.
What are your new projects?
I want to make new tapestries. They are made in Belgium and published by Magnolia Editions in Oakland, California.
March 27th 2014