Many things fly and float in “Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005” at the Whitney Museum of American Art: men and women, harpies and angels, birds and beasts, mushrooms and stars. And some things fall to earth, or rather to the museum’s black stone floors, maybe to rise again, maybe not.
The whole show, a midcareer retrospective of Ms. Smith’s art, put me in mind of a Victorian fairy tale. The tone is at once light and grievous; dreamlike dramas recur. There are miracles and martyrdoms, bursts of cruelty and hilarity. In a kind of boomerang karma, humans merge with animals, and animals have spiritual lives. Crystal tears pile up in corners; bones and worms are served up for meals.
Fanciful as it is, Ms. Smith’s art is also deeply, corporeally realistic. Step off the elevator on the Whitney’s third floor, and you’re in a wonderland version of a pathology lab. Empty glass jars carry the names of bodily fluids they are meant to hold: urine, sweat, saliva, mucus, milk, semen. A rib cage hangs on the wall near sets of internal organs. What looks like a flayed skin sits folded on a pedestal.
Each item has a freakish beauty. The ribs, cast in pale terracotta and held together by string, suggest chimes. The organs — male and female urogenital systems — are of a prettily patinated bronze. The folded skin looks plush and warm; it is made from panels of sheep’s wool stitched together with human hairs.
Most of this work dates from the mid-1980s, when Ms. Smith had been making art for only a few years. Born in 1954, a daughter of the abstract sculptor Tony Smith, she was raised in suburban New Jersey, went to Roman Catholic schools and didn’t consider art as a profession. As a child she wanted to be a nun.
Before and after moving to Manhattan in 1976 she worked as a cook, an electrician, a surveyor, an emergency medical technician and an artist’s assistant. Around the time of her father’s death in 1980 she picked up art herself in a serious way. She has not put it down for an instant.
She was largely self-taught and, obviously, fully self-aware. She paid attention to what others were doing, learning a lot from the work of artists like Eva Hesse, Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, Paul Thek, Hannah Wilke and Louise Bourgeois, as well as from her contemporaries in a fringy Lower East Side art world.
She sought technical instruction wherever she could find it and learned as she went. A collaborator and multitasker by temperament, she covered a lot of ground fast. That first gallery at the Whitney encompasses metal, plaster and glass sculpture, drawing, sewing and printmaking. She quickly added painting, photography, bookmaking and filmmaking to her repertory.
From the start her art was of a piece with her life, without being diaristic. The mid-’80s internal organs, and the full-body forms that followed, had sources in her childhood religion, with its cult of relics and fleshly mortification, and sensual saints like Angela de Foligno, who envisioned Jesus showing her his wounds and whispering, “Lella, these are all for you.”
The work was also the product of a specific social and political moment that saw the rise and spread of AIDS. One of Ms. Smith’s two sisters, Beatrice, died of the disease. So did many of her friends. And its trace, while rarely explicit, is omnipresent in the first two galleries of the show.
The second and larger of them is a landscape of physical damage. A female figure made of tissuelike paper hangs from the ceiling, her limbs torn or amputated. A man and woman, cast in beeswax, leaking fluids, unconscious, probably dead, are suspended from metal stands like carcasses readied for butchering. Figures of women crouch on the floor or double over on the wall. One with the flawless face of a classical Aphrodite has wounds, like claw marks, gouged into her back.
A standing woman, arms open at her side, is more than just unclothed; she’s stripped of her skin, leaving her tissues and muscles exposed. Titled “Virgin Mary” (1992), she brings one phase of Ms. Smith’s career to a close, while a bronze Mary Magdalene, dated two years later, opens another. This Magdalene is modeled on Donatello’s famous penitent dressed in animal pelts. But Ms. Smith’s feral saint has fur of her own, growing all over her body, as if she were half wolf.
The natural world was Ms. Smith’s dominant subject in the late 1990s, when she was immersed in printmaking and in studying taxidermic specimens. A wall-size etching of animals — a wolf, a deer, a cat, a peacock — done in silvery lines on black ground is a centerpiece of this part of the show, along with a Morris Gravesian print of a bird skeleton. Affixed to the opposite wall are bronze casts of the bodies of dozens of small birds looking like tiny mummies, heads aimed skyward.
Much of the rest of the exhibition — organized by Siri Engberg, a curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and installed at the Whitney by David W. Kiehl — tends in that aspiring direction, with a pair of big gold moons painted on glass, a small plaster sculpture of the biblical Eve with arm raised and cast stars placed high on gallery walls.
Yet Ms. Smith is not a true celestialist. Her art is far too deliberate, struggled with, and materialist for that. And this is not a mystical show. In the last gallery a bronze sculpture titled “Rapture” (2001) of a life-size nude woman, scowling, exhausted, not young, stepping from the ripped-open belly of a wolf, is more about rupture than about ecstasy. It is creepy-miraculous, pathological-fantastical, in the spirit of the 1980s work at the beginning of the show.
Ms. Smith would do well to have her art retain some of this charge of uncertain disturbance as she works away from the abject intensities of her early work. Recently, she has been diving into art history — Egyptian and Buddhist sculptures, Victorian illustration, the 15th-century Flemish altarpieces of Hugo van der Goes, the modernist sculptures of Degas, Medardo Rosso and Elie Nadelman — subtly, even sweetly, inflecting what she finds as she makes the past her own.
Too subtly and sweetly for some tastes. In an interview, she has said that in the 1980s she deliberately played with and pushed forward certain unmentionables in American culture: personal mortality, bodily decay, the brutality of dissolution. And now she wants to play with an art-world unmentionable: sentimentality. And this is what she seems to be doing in her current Victoriana, with its portraits of Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson, illustrations for Lewis Carroll and riffs on Gustave Doré.
Even with a New Sincerity in vogue in art, this is a tricky terrain to navigate, and could lead people to see her work as arch or slight. I understand such a reaction. The first thing I thought when I saw “Rapture” in photographs was “kitsch.” But when I saw it in the context of the show and her career, many other thoughts came to mind, including words that the poet Audre Lorde wrote just after she had a breast removed as a result of cancer:
“Maybe this is the chance to live and speak those things I really do believe, that power comes from moving into whatever I fear most that cannot be avoided. But will I ever be strong enough again to open my mouth and not have a cry of raw pain leap out?”
For some reason, for me “Rapture” evoked Lorde’s struggle, and seemed a positive answer to her question.
Ms. Smith’s art is just that kind of art. Even with its increasing smoothness, it wears moral seriousness on its sleeve, if not tattooed to its wrist. This is not a fashionable style; for much of the art world it never has been. And maybe that’s why, more and more, her art seems to occupy a universe of its own, a floating world where art, like religion, is both high and low, gross and fine, and always about the only essential things.