An Interview with Rebecca Smith
April, 2009

See images of this work here

MC: Your work in the show Mergers & Acquisitions at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center was part of what curator Stuart Horodner called a “series of unique calls and responses.” The work, titled “Birthday,” is a large, 20 ft by 36.5 foot wall installation made of colored tape, paint and other materials. It was a commissioned  “response” to a specific artwork by your father, David Smith, that was loaned to the Center by an Atlanta collector. The entire show of which it was a part consisted of works by some well-known older artists—Magritte, Dali, Morandi, Leon Golub, Gordon Matta-Clark, Romare Bearden, among them—and unique reactions, or “responses,” to those works by contemporary artist such as yourself, William Pope.L, Nina Katchadourian, Bill Albertini, Franz West; even the inside of the Art Center was transformed (wall stripped away, window added) by two rising Atlanta architects in response to photographs of a house cut in half by Matta-Clark.

Can you describe the “Birthday”—and how you made it?

RS: I began work on [the piece] by  thinking about horizon lines and “ traveling lines” – I’d worked with traveling lines before, and  relate to my interest in Australian aboriginal art in which lines traversing major areas of a painting, cave drawing or even body painting are commonly found..  So I assembled certain tapes and a few other materials and got started.

MC: Let me describe the work and perhaps you could comment on some of these elements, which constitute a vocabulary that is, in part, familiar from much of your other work, but in some ways rather new: If you could talk about how certain decisions you made were informed or inspired, or perhaps talk about “Birthday”’s relation to the theme of this show or to the David Smith spray that was positioned amidst your work—we should point out that is a framed spray paint drawing   (“Untitled”,enamel on paper, 17 ½ x 11 ½ inches) that sits on the wall about two-thirds of the way down, from left to right, as your wall installation progresses.

“Birthday,” a wall piece, is a drawing with material, akin to sculpture. It  moves from left to right; the central l. to r. axis is a head-high interweaving of three runs of white tape, which have the sheen of satin , the three strands start out individually and then, as they proceed rightwards, they loop, cross, drop, reach, rotate, fall in mobius arabesques and then fly on. They individuate toward the end, only to have two of the three stop short of the end of the wall.

Along the bottom of the wall, about 18 inches high, is a single blue line. At the level of the floor, flush with it, is a strip of yellow-and-black caution tape.

At three junctures, beginning, middle and toward the end, other signatures or markers are organized into three vertical stacks—dashes of tape, one upon the other, airily spaced, police tape in some instances, or, in two spots, presumably your left and right hands outlined on the wall in spray paint.

Along about the first third or perhaps half of the piece, a languid, lavender strip of vinyl bunting is loosely draped, looking like the kind of crepe that might festoon an archway for a kid’s party—a birthday party, perhaps.

At the upper right of the piece, high above the floor, two sheets of drawing paper, both blank, one manila the other white, operate like blank windows onto and into the space. They stand out against the white wall, which nonetheless seems to operate as a positive space, giving dimensionality to the deceptively linear-seeming elements that comprise the progression of markings across the wall.

Can you talk about any of these choices that you made with respect to the materials or how they were organized, and what they mean, to you personally and within the piece?

RS: I started out by doing some sketchbook drawings with a lot of lines and different colors of tape traveling the whole wall in many layers, not on top of each other but rising up the wall. That’s how I first conceived of it, and I planned to edit many of the tape lines out when I worked on the real thing. I also thought of putting pieces of paper on the wall, echoing the frame of the pictorial work.   I also had planned on stenciling my hand with spray paint because one of the associations with David’s spray drawing is its relationship to early human spray drawings in caves:  people would blow pigment through a hollow plant stem to stencil their hand prints on a wall.  That was always a plan. When I got to the real wall at the Center, I realized it would be just too loud and domineering to have many, many stripes in a Navaho blanket effect on this wall, so I decided to simply make notations for the orientations of things instead.. One of the first things I made was the long blue line about a foot and half off the floor. Another very early move was the purple or lavender drape.  It’s like tape without a sticky side. Then I placed my father’s spray drawing at around that point. I did those rising horizontals as a way to note where, potentially, the beginning of these lines could be. I thought that I would extend the colored tape lines further but as I was working on it, it seemed excessive, and I decided I wanted to leave a lot of the space empty.  The piece seemed to speak so clearly at that point that I didn’t want to embellish; in fact, I took some things away. I did want the white tape—I’d never used white tape before—and I thought it would be really interesting to do that.  And I wanted to embellish with that, and have it be really baroque, and kind of demented and travel all the way across the 30 foot wall in its baroque, demented way – a brand of feminine sensibility that you would see in wedding cakes, something that Petah Coyne, among others, has explored.  It continued to wander along, was pretty labor intensive and exciting to make.  It ended up traveling towards the [spray] drawing and then I decided to make a kind of flourish and a sort of nesting riff around the [spray] drawing. Eventually I realized I was coming to the end of the wall and how was I going to end the white tape? At this point I should say that in doing this-- and it was two and a half days to make this work --  I was really excited  and  a little bit apprehensive about “ meeting” my father in this form,  but as I was making the piece  I realized that whatever meaning was going to come out of it was just going to come, and  I didn’t want to think about it  consciously during the process. I was just going to be open. Associations did come to me, later, but only after I had made the works. 
The two blank pieces of paper were like absences, the general sparseness of marks and events suggested a kind of absence and that for me, famously like Barack Obama, my father was more an absence than a presence for most of my life. Although I have very strong memories of him, I was only 11 when he died and lived far away for most of the time growing up even before his death. I wasn’t with him that much. That lilac line says something very evocative to me about my girlhood.  I had a birthday party the theme colors of which were purple and pink.   I thought it was really quite fabulous that all m, streamers and balloons and  decorations were purple and pink. I remember the pleasure in those colors and the festoonery of that drapery and so on and that’s what association that part of the piece has for me.  There is also an association with funeral draping, with purple as a funereal color.

MC:  I understand that, although people have often been interested in knowing how your work might or might not relate to your father’s work, you have resisted talking about it. Obviously, from what you just said, you have been thinking about it, at least of late. Is it true that you have just begun to think about the connections and influences? Do you have a sense that now is the time, in your career, to do this?

RS: I was certainly ready to do so in this situation. Yes, I am trying to think about it and talk about it.  It has been  interesting to think about, but I’ve come to the conclusion with this project that there’s really no kind of planning, no conscious thinking about it that’s as helpful as just letting things emerge, as they did in this case in considering the proximity of the work on the same wall. I realized I had braided these three tape lines—I thought of my mother, my father and myself—my mother had died recently,  less than a year ago.  So I  had these three lines, they seemed like life lines, and I had two of the lines end,  and one of them not.  One of them is not completed yet.

MC: I also noted the yellow-and-black caution tape in a couple of places, the kind you might see around a work site or a crime scene. What prompted those references? 

RS: It seemed to be a good tape to use because it’s about danger and there is a lot of danger in life, and I associate that with my father, too, to a degree.  I had been sent that tape by Richard Deacon after I had been in a serious car accident.  My father died in a car accident. I liked the association with a certain kind of code or directions or uses, so I used a red-and-white and green-and-white striped tape as well.

MC: You are not an art historian, of course, but you are both respectful of art history—you studied at the Studio School, and are a part of art history itself, in often being referenced in the works of your father.  Due to his early death in 1965, you became involved in running the Smith Estate, at first with a whole board of trustees, including Clement Greenberg—you are among a few relatively young artists who actually knew Greenberg. I know you are conversant with art history in a deep and profound way, and that you agree with Dave Hickey, who argued recently in Art in America, that art must learn from the past, it must be informed by an understanding of what art in the past has accomplished and what its affects are over time, if it is to have real value. How does this apply to understanding historically important artwork that also happens to be in your own lineage? Should one understand the role of that work in your ongoing work just as fervently as one should understand what Picasso or Manet meant more generally? Or is that a different category of influence altogether, something more private, personal, psychological?

RS: I think it is both.  I think that, as an artist, even if he hadn’t been my father, I would have been aware of the work of David Smith and I think that sculptors who are really going to think about art history are going to have to contend in some way with Smith.   But the personal part is a whole separate category, and I think it was both more difficult for me  and in some ways easier for me to be an artist because of who my father was. I think a very, very early experience of seeing him working, seeing his art works around where we lived, was important to me.  It communicated more than anything else a sense of how he was constantly making things and how he felt about making things. Whether it was drawing on our legs with mercurochrome if we had a scratch--he would put mercurochrome on it and then kind of embellish it into an image -- or when he made us pancakes in the shape of animals -- there was  this sense that things were for making, as in the early Maurice Sendak book we loved called A Hole Is To Dig.   There was a casual direct feel he had for creativity and the imagination and how affirming he was to others for that; and the way imagination was so much a part of his pleasure in everyday life.  The whole setting he created for my sister Candida Smith and me, in Bolton Landing, was really something of an imaginative playground. I think tapping into that kind of space mentally is what  my sense of making art is about.

MC: That seems to be what you tapped into for this piece. There is a lot of play in it, taking the occasion and embellishing it, taking a space that was given in this group show and really working within the specificities of that space as well as in relation to the artwork that was there.

RS: First of all, you said the word ‘play,’ and that was another one of things that was important in my childhood relationship to my father in that, as an artist, he did what children do naturally all the time – make art. Most children make art and later they lose the ability. As a child, I was very aware that here  was  an adult who was doing what we were doing. He had not stopped. It was a little bit embarrassing---it seemed like he was doing something childish, not something grown up. As a person, he was very much a grownup and rather authoritarian as a father, so that he wasn’t childish as a person, but I felt that in making artworks he was doing kind of childish things. There was something, I don’t know, strange about it.  I t made me uncomfortable.

MC: There are probably a lot of things acknowledged consciously or registered, however unconsciously, that somehow find their way to the wall in “Birthday.”  I was wondering, now that both your parents have passed away, do you think that you will be exploring their influences on your life in your future work?. 

RS: Sure, because I guess I don’t really drop things once I’ve started them. There were a lot of elements   in this that I would like to explore further. One thing I know for sure is that the method I used to approach the project is definitely good for me and feels right.  One of the things that happened in this pieces has to do with the handprint,, which represented for me (obviously enough) working with your  hands as an artist. and I placed them my life line and my father’s life line.  Also, there was visible on the wall of the gallery,, in the center, some kind of mysterious plate buried  under the sheetrock,  and  I put those sheets of paper in relation to it—there are several—that make  four rectangle, hovering. The rectangles reference “art” in some way,and says that art frames something, focuses something -- it crystallizes something in the context of this flow that is life. One of the aspects of making tape drawings that I really like is that rather than creating a moveable object, a work is created that exists for a discreet period of time.  I like the process of making it over a concentrated working period, and  leaving it. Then later, it disappears.  

The aluminum foil tape I is kind of an inside joke.. I worked on these rising layers of tape quite a long time.  These little pieces of tape had to occupy the big wash of white wall in a very particular way.  The top one is located almost at the ceiling, but not quite.  It’s shiny, silver, aluminum foil tape, a little homage to my father, a reference to his stainless steel sculptures, and it’s at the very top.                                     

© Michael Coffey 2009