An Assessment of Kiki Smith’s ‘Lilith’

 

Kiki Smith’s sculpture Lilith, composed of rough body-cast bronze, is exhibited situated on a wall in a crouching, upside down position reminiscent of a spider or bat. The viewer is immediately unsettled by the naked, animalistic figure, its shiny, dark form interrupted only by piercing blue glass eyes. The accusatory gaze, the intense yet ambiguous posture (is she predator or prey?), and the context lent to the otherwise neutral body by its name all work to charge the atmosphere with meaning. Lilith in her original biblical setting was Adam’s initial counterpart, formed not from his rib but from dust alongside him, but refused to submit to him sexually and fled Eden to become a demon (Patai 296). Lilith has been picked up as a sort of feminist icon, as evidenced by books such as The Coming of Lilith: Essays on Feminism, Judaism, and Sexual Ethics by Judith Plaskow, and scores of other books, essays, and websites that reference her as a beacon of women’s empowerment.

Most of Smith’s works are centered on feminism and women’s issues. She deals mainly with the body as subject matter, sculpting arresting figures in various media. In 1979, she found inspiration for her first artworks in a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, developing a passion and skill for painting and later sculpting anatomical figures (Heartney 205). She has formed women’s bodies in plaster, wax, glass, and a host of other materials, frequently revisiting issues of religion, bodily functions, and the AIDS crisis in particular (Engberg 21). Her Pee Body (1992) and Train (1993) sculptures addressed women and bodily function in such an explicit, inflammatory way, that some (male) critics considered them too disgusting to be shown (Nochlin 35).

Lilith is probably her most widely-known piece, famous for its confrontational gaze and unapologetic nakedness. Lilith’s form is notably hyper realistic, modeled precisely off a real woman’s body, making a statement about perfection: She is not ideal by the standards of mainstream media such as fashion magazines, but as a woman directly formed by God’s own hands (not even indirectly, through a predecessor’s rib), would Lilith not be the height of perfection? Ironically, the well-known Lilith is not, in fact, the original version, but a second iteration. Lilith was first cast in papier-mache, giving her a much more delicate and impermanent appearance, as well as unfinished. Both versions share the same shocking pale-eyed glare, but the second Lilith is visibly stronger, more demanding of respect: a force to be reckoned with. She carries weight in multiple senses; both physically and historically. She embodies all women who refuse to subordinate themselves, in the biblical sense and in the sense of the meaning Lilith as a concept has taken on for modern feminists.

Smith’s greater body of work reflects a nuanced perspective on femininity, and humanity in general. While not generally as explicit in its depiction of genitalia, the confrontationally abundant nudity in her sculptures is reminiscent of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979): forcing acknowledgment of women’s bodies, often to the discomfort of the viewer. Siri Engberg compares Smith’s Tale to other feminist artists’ political works surrounding women’s bodies, but notes that while much of her work is politically and socially charged in its depiction of female bodies, Tale and other of Smith’s works garner a strong visceral response from a more personal place (Engberg 24). Smith’s art is inseparable from its statements about womanhood, but resonates on an unsettlingly personal level as well as politically.

Lilith is difficult to analyze in a vacuum devoid of context. Many historically important philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Kant in particular) urge viewers of art to strip works of their intended meaning and judge them based solely on aesthetic beauty—or more generously, visually cathartic value. Kant’s philosophy, applied to art, considers the possibility of judging a work based on personal attachment and interest (“Everyone has his own [sense of] taste,” p 16), but steadfastly differentiates this from “beauty”, insisting to call something beautiful is to make a claim of objective evaluation (Kant 16). For Kant, to assess a work of art effectively, one must free one’s judgment of all personal interest, historical context, and practical purpose, and reduce one’s view to the purely aesthetic “beauty” of a piece (Kant §6). However, even to look at this piece without any understanding of the artist’s intent, or even the mythology that inspired it, is still to react to the image of a crouching, naked woman’s accusatory glare. Why does seeing a woman poised to attack evoke such a jarring response? Is it humanly possible to look at such an image without responding in a way informed by the social climate one is raised in, one’s historical knowledge, and one’s personal feelings and experiences as a result thereof?

When analyzing work such as Kiki Smith’s, especially a piece with such a rich historical background and cultural relevance as Lilith, to judge in such a shallow way is to ignore most of what the work has to offer, if it is even possible to divorce the “beauty” of the piece from its visual connotations and context in religious history, misogynist society, and the artist or viewer’s personal life and way of seeing. Kant’s philosophy does not take into account all the implications of “objectively judging” a depiction of a woman’s nude body without considering the impetus behind the creation of it, by a woman, making a statement.

Nochlin’s philosophy approaches the work from within—within the system in which it is created, within the art world which receives it, within the very heart of the woman from whom the work is borne. Giving little to no time to the discussion of aesthetic attributes, she immediately concerns herself with the context in which women’s work exists. The question of “great women artists” is a matter of systems within which art is created, not women or gender. The question is frequently challenged by pointing out scores of women who have achieved greatness in art by any number of standards, but according to Nochlin: “Such attempts…are certainly worth the effort, both in adding to our knowledge of women’s achievement and of art history generally. But they do nothing to question the assumptions lying behind the question “Why have there been no great women artists?” On the contrary, by attempting to answer it, they tacitly reinforce its negative implications.” (Nochlin 1) Nochlin argues that women must look at themselves as artists not with the self-pity so easily inspired by the plight of the woman creative, but rather with an eye for potential and opportunity (Nochlin 3).

Smith’s work has a long history of opportunism, never dwelling on the tragedy of the female in its simplest rendition, but exploring numerous concepts, with varying levels of relation to women’s issues. Her personal background is one of resilience and determination in art, from her subject matter to her media and artistic process itself, never having worked within a studio besides her own room, and using all manner of materials. The majority of her work speaks to women’s experiences on some level, but never with a tone of self-indulgent complaints. The obvious choice, especially in an age where feminism is a widely celebrated subject, is to rely on heavily repeated motifs of women’s suffering in a sexist society, used again and again ad nauseam, discussing important issues certainly, but in self-congratulatory, unoriginal ways that no longer offer new ideas and perspectives. Smith’s work, even decades after its creation, remains relevant not only from a feminist perspective, but a human one. A viewer can spend hours analyzing and researching one Kiki Smith piece and recognize its cultural relevance and personal meaning all the better, appreciating her prolific ability to depict women and their experiences and struggles in a sincere and original (and never self-pitying) way. On the other hand, it is equally possible to walk into a gallery with no extensive knowledge of religion, feminist art, body cast bronze as a medium, or Kiki Smith’s personal history and artistic oeuvre, and still experience an awed chill upon locking piercing eyes with the dark, crouched body on the wall—and in a more modern context, that may be close enough to pure visual beauty.

SOURCES

  1. “Crouching Woman, Hidden Story: Erin Hyman on Kiki Smith’s Lilith.” Web log post. Open Space. SFMOMA, 8 Sept. 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
  2. “The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago.” Brooklyn Museum:. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2016. <https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/dinner_party/&gt;.
  3. Perreault, John. “Kiki Smith: Glass Is the New Fat.” Artopia. N.p., 04 Sept. 2011. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.
  4. Martin, Emily, Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Jane Aldin, Lisa M. Messinger, Sabine Rewald, Gary Tinterow, Susan Alyson Stein, Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, J. Stewart Johnson, Clare LeCorbeiller, Douglas Eklund, Laura Muir, Nan Rosenthal, Samantha J. Rippner, Jeff L. Rosenheim, and Malcolm Daniel. “Twentieth Century.”The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 57.2 (1999): 56-69. Web.
  5. Farmer, J. A. (1998). Devotion. Art Journal, 57(1), 64-76. Retrieved from http://proxy.lib.umich.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/223306395?accountid=14667
  6. Patai, Raphael. “Lilith.” The Journal of American Folklore 77.306 (1964): 295-314. Web.
  7. Plaskow, Judith. The Coming of Lilith: Essays on Feminism, Judaism, and Sexual Ethics, 1972-2003. Ed. Donna Berman. Boston: Beacon, 2005. Print.
  8. Beckenstein, Joyce. “Personal Curiosity.” Sculpture 35.2 (2016): 20-27. Art Source. Web. 21 Oct. 2016.
  9. Engberg, Siri, Kiki Smith, and Linda Nochlin. Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2005. Print.
  10. Heartney, Eleanor, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, Sue Scott, and Linda Nochlin. After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art. Munich: Prestel, 2007. Print.
  11. Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” 1971. Web. 25 Nov 2016.
  12. Kant, Immanuel. “The Critique of Judgment.” 1790. Web. 25 Nov 2016.
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