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Table of contents What's This?
  • Arrangement
  • Biographical/Historical Note
  • Scope and Contents of Collection
  • Access
  • Acquisition Information
  • Related Materials
  • Processing History
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Digitized Material

  • Contributing Institution: Special Collections
    Title: Barbara T. Smith papers
    Creator: Distel, Herbert
    Creator: Baldessari, John, 1931-
    Creator: Rosenthal, Rachel, 1926-2015
    Creator: Chicago, Judy, 1939-
    Creator: Castelli, Leo
    Creator: Kaprow, Allan
    Creator: McMillan, Jerry, 1936-
    Creator: Lacy, Suzanne
    Creator: Smith, Barbara Turner, 1931-
    Creator: Burden, Chris, 1946-2015
    Creator: Buchanan, Nancy, 1946-
    Creator: Cotton, Paul, 1939-
    Creator: Antin, Eleanor
    Creator: Schneemann, Carolee, 1939-2019
    Creator: Dakin, Susanna
    Creator: McCarthy, Paul, 1945-
    Identifier/Call Number: 2014.M.14
    Physical Description: 187.4 Linear Feet(362 boxes, 9 flatfiles)
    Date (inclusive): 1927-2012, undated, bulk 1948-2012
    Date (bulk): 1948-2012
    Abstract: Barbara Turner Smith (American, born 1931) is one of the most influential figures in the history of performance and feminist art in Southern California. Her work – which has taken the varied forms of painting, drawing, installation, video, performance, and artists' books, and often involves her own body – explores concepts that strike at the core of human nature, including male and female sexuality, physical and spiritual sustenance, ecology, technology, and death. The archive, which offers an exceptionally rich resource for Smith's highly personal artistic practice, contains 160 diaries, 54 sketchbooks, hundreds of drawings, more than 850 vintage prints, thousands of negatives and contact sheets, approximately 90 films and 1100 audio and video tapes, in addition to all the notes, plans, and archival records related to her artistic projects from her student days forward. The archive encompasses not only Smith's career as an artist, but also her work as a writer, teacher, and advocate of the arts in Los Angeles.
    Physical Location: Request access to the physical materials described in this inventory through the catalog record  for this collection. Click here for the access policy .
    Language of Material: Collection material is primarily in English with some material in other languages.


    The collection is arranged in six series: Series I. Personal papers, 1949-2011, undated; Series II. Artworks, early 1940s-1994, 2003, 2009, undated; Series III. Project files, 1960s-2012, undated; Series IV. Professional files, 1948-2012, undated; Series V. Photographs, 1959-2009, undated; Series VI. Audiovisual materials, 1927, 1935-1941, 1967-2011, undated.

    Biographical/Historical Note

    Barbara Turner Smith (born in Pasadena, California in 1931) has been at the forefront of artistic movements in California for over fifty years, particularly in the areas of performance and feminist art. Her work – which has taken the varied forms of painting, drawing, installation, video, performance, and artists' books, and often involves her own body as a vehicle for her art – explores concepts that strikes at the core of human nature, including male and female sexuality, physical and spiritual sustenance, ecology, technology, and death.
    Smith grew up in a traditional, upper-middle-class Presbyterian family in Pasadena, where she was expected to embrace the role available to most women in the 1950s – that of wife and mother. She attended Pomona College, receiving a degree in painting in 1953. She married a fellow Pomona student in 1951 and spent the rest of the decade raising three children. Smith suffered from depression after the birth of her first two children and began seeing a therapist who encouraged her to explore her intellectual interests. In 1960, Smith started volunteering at the Pasadena Art Museum, where she came into contact with its innovative director, Tom Leavitt, curator Walter Hopps, and artists such as Ed Ruscha, Joe Goode, Larry Bell, and later, Allan Kaprow.
    In 1965, Smith enrolled in postgraduate courses at Chouinard Art Institute, where her classes with Conner Everts and Emerson Woelffer were especially influential. Still employing paint as her medium of choice, Smith executed a series of large black canvases set behind sheets of glass and contained within aluminum frames. The combination of black paint and glass created a mirrored surface, such that viewers were confronted by their reflections. These works demonstrate Smith's sophisticated distillation of minimalism and Light & Space art, along with her anticipation of more conceptual practices. Concurrently, Smith produced 38 Coffins – black-bound artists' books produced on a Xerox machine that she had leased and installed in her living room. She placed objects such as fabrics, photographs, drawings, foodstuffs and part of her body onto the Xerox plate. These highly personal and intimate works presage not only Smith's use of the body as an artistic medium, but also the emergence of both feminism and performance art in Southern California in general.
    The late 1960s were a transformative time for Smith. In 1968, she divorced and soon lost custody of her children. That same year, she attended a workshop with Alex Hay, an experimental dancer and member of the ground-breaking Judson Dance Theatre in New York. Working on Hay's pieces, Smith was encouraged to explore more spontaneous and ephemeral notions of art. Another participant in the workshop, the collector and artistic entrepreneur Stanley Grinstein, became the catalyst for Smith's segue into the creation of performances when he hosted her work Ritual Meal (1969) at his home. Sixteen guests were invited to dine and were greeted by an array of costumed characters and seated amidst the sounds of Smith's pre-recorded voice, an anxious heartbeat, and loud gongs. Clothed in medical gowns, the guests were then served a six-course meal, but offered only surgical tools and test tubes with which to eat and drink. Ritual Meal was followed by other works involving food such as Mass Meal (1969) and White Meal (1971), each of which evoked similar notions of ritual, community, attraction and disgust.
    In 1969, Smith enrolled in the inaugural class of the newly-established MFA program at the University of California, Irvine. UCI provided an arena in which Smith could explore her work within a community of like-minded artists. With fellow students Chris Burden and Nancy Buchanan she formed and ran the non-profit gallery F Space in Santa Ana, which played host to several of Smith's important early installations and performances, such as Field Piece (1968-1972) which comprised a bed of 9-foot-tall translucent resin shafts that resembled enlarged blades of grass. At the prompting of human weight, a hidden network of cables and triggers caused lights beneath the blades to illuminate, creating a warm, ethereal glow. Smith's use of industrial materials and electronics put Field Piece in direct dialogue with early examples of Light & Space art. In contrast to the autonomous sculptures of Larry Bell, Peter Alexander, and her professor, Robert Irwin, Smith's invitation to walk upon, lie upon, and touch the artwork generated a communal sensory experience, marking Field Piece as a prominent early example of interactive, technology-based art.
    For her most infamous work, Feed Me (1973), Smith placed her own nude body at the center of the piece, as she spent one full night in the bathroom of the Museum of Conceptual Art in San Francisco surrounded by an array of objects including perfume, body oils, beads, food, wine, books, items of clothing, and marijuana. One by one, visitors were invited to enter the charged, temple-like space, greeted by Smith and a recording of her voice chanting the words "feed me." As numerous scholars have written, Feed Me turned the tables on the traditional role of women as objects of art. Embodying the figure of the reclining, passive female nude herself, Smith constructed a dynamic in which visitors had to conform to a situation she had orchestrated. This intermingling of sexuality and power continued to factor into much of Smith's subsequent work.
    In the early 1970s, Smith became deeply engaged with the eastern traditions of Buddhism, Zen meditation, yoga and Tantrism, as well as Native American rituals, shamanism and mystic practices. These influences appeared in numerous performances, such as Pure Food (1973), in which the artist meditated in a field for eight hours, "absorbing only cosmic rays and sound." Other performances in the 1970s tested the body's limits while also exploring the emergence of performance as a new medium for art.Smith's engagement with notions of ritual and mysticism continued into the 1980s, and were joined by an attention to global ecologies, technology and tourism. For the long-term project The 21st Century Odyssey (1991-1993), Smith used nascent video-phone technology to keep in contact with her partner, Dr. Roy Walford, who was on a two-year assignment within Biosphere 2 in Arizona. Smith travelled to far-flung sites in countries such as Thailand, India, Nepal, Australia, and Norway, taking on the mythical role of Odysseus while Walford awaited her safe return.
    Barbara T. Smith's legacy must also be considered in tandem with her numerous writings and her active role as an advocate for Los Angeles-area artists and institutions. Smith has an important body of critical writings that ranges from early reviews of exhibitions in Pasadena in the 1960s to articles in prominent art publications such as Artweek, Artforum, LAICA Journal and High Performance. In addition to founding F Space, Smith played a key role in several other Los Angeles organizations. She was a highly active member of the LA branch of Experiments in Art & Technology, and she was a founding member, with Paul McCarthy and Linda Burnham, of the Highland Art Agents, a group that organized performance events across Los Angeles. As a founding board member of the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (LAICA), Smith channeled her untiring support for new voices into an advisory capacity for the city's first major space dedicated to contemporary art.Long viewed by other artists as a central figure in the development of performance, Smith's representation by The Box gallery since 2007, and her prominent inclusion in nine of the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions from 2011 to 2012, has advanced the public's understanding and appreciation of Smith's continually evolving artist career.
    This note is drawn from a text compiled by Glenn Phillips, with the assistance of Claire Rifelj.

    Scope and Contents of Collection

    Barbara T. Smith's archive offers an exceptionally rich resource on Smith's highly personal artistic practice, containing 160 diaries, 54 sketchbooks, hundreds of drawings, more than 850 vintage prints, thousands of negatives and contact sheets, approximately 90 films, 1100 audio and video tapes, in addition to all the notes, plans, and archival records related to her artistic projects from student days forward. The archive encompasses not only Smith's career as an artist, but also her work as a writer, teacher, and advocate of the arts in Los Angeles.
    Series I. Personal papers includes Smith's diaries from the 1950s to 2009, her extensive personal correspondence from the 1950s to 2011 and miscellaneous documents related to private matters.
    Series II. Artworks includes finished and unfinished artworks and related material, such as artists' books, drawings, paintings, prints, sketchbooks, Xerox artworks and poetry.
    Series III. Project files includes documents regarding the production of artworks, performances and exhibitions, as well as graphic design projects, lectures, symposia, travels, grant and funding applications, originally arranged together by the artist. It includes projects Smith participated in or curated, and material as various as photographs, sketches, drawings, notes, charts, diagrams, storyboards, receipts, correspondence, and exhibition ephemera.
    Series IV. Professional files includes material related to other activities Smith carried on through decades, most notably teaching, writing, and her role as a prominent advocator for artists in Los Angeles. It includes a collection of artist files (comprising press clippings, gallery ephemera, and correspondence), press clippings of articles about or written by Smith, research files on topics as varied as religions, environment, sexuality and women's organizations, files regarding her various teaching appointments and the workshops she organized, and some miscellaneous papers.
    Series V. Photographs includes Smith's prints, contact sheets, negatives, transparencies and slides documenting her projects, her private life, and many topics of interest to her.
    Series VI. Audiovisual materials includes a vast personal section comprising Smith's father's family films, audio recordings of psychic readings and therapy, as well as film reels documenting daily life. The largest section includes recordings of Smith's performances, her video works and source materials used in the performances themselves. Many films and tapes had been copied by Smith in various formats, thus the archive frequently includes different copies and transfers of the same original film reel or tape. Audio visual material in this series is unavailable until reformatted.


    The archive is open for use by qualified researchers with the following exceptions: audio visual materials and data disks are unavailable until reformatted. Film reels F88-F91 are unavailable pending conservation treatment. Boxes 354-355 are restricted due to fragility; contact the repository to request digital imaging. Box 64 is sealed due to privacy issues.

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired in 2014.

    Related Materials

    Barbara T. Smith Coffin series and related material, 1965-1976 (2013.M.23), comprises a unique set of twenty-five hand-bound artists' books documenting Barbara T. Smith's experiments with an early Xerox 914 copy machine between 1965 and 1966; and a set of working materials and works related to the Coffin series.

    Processing History

    Processed by Pietro Rigolo between September 2014 and December 2015. In 2024, Sara McGillivray integrated ADD1, consisting of two boxes of yearbooks.

    Publication Rights

    Preferred Citation

    Barbara T. Smith papers, 1927-2012, bulk 1948-2012, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Accession no. 2014.M.14.

    Digitized Material

    Selected audio and video recordings are being digitized and made available online. Connect to selected audio and video recordings from Series VI.A Personal  and to selected audio and video recordings from Series VI.B Projects .

    Subjects and Indexing Terms

    Diaries -- United States -- 20th century
    Diaries -- United States -- 21st century
    Letters (correspondence) -- United States -- 20th century
    Black-and-white prints (photographs)
    Gelatin silver prints -- United States -- 20th century
    Audiocasettes -- United States -- 20th century
    Audiotapes -- 20th century
    Video recordings -- United States -- 20th century
    Video recordings
    Video art -- California -- Los Angeles
    Video art -- 20th century
    Installations (Art)
    Computer drawings -- California -- 20th century
    Sketchbooks -- California -- 20th century
    Drawings -- United States -- 20th century
    Performance art -- 20th century
    Performance art
    Performance art -- California -- Los Angeles
    Artists -- California -- History -- 20th century
    Artists -- California -- Los Angeles
    Artists -- California
    Artists -- California -- Interviews
    Artists -- California -- Portraits
    Videodiscs (video recording disks)
    Videocassettes -- United States -- 20th century
    Videocassettes -- California -- Los Angeles -- 20th century
    Artists -- 20th century -- Correspondence
    Videotapes -- United States -- Los Angeles -- 21st century
    Videotapes -- United States -- 20th century
    Videotapes -- California -- Los Angeles -- 21st century
    Art, American -- California -- 20th century
    Floppy disks
    Art, American -- California -- Los Angeles -- 20th century
    Artists books -- California -- Los Angeles -- 20th century
    Performance art -- United States -- 20th century
    Performance art -- Periodicals
    Art, American -- 20th century
    Women artists -- Archives