Peacock is the most monumental and commanding example of the many works by Smith based on sketches made in natural history museums and then printed on sheets of textured handmade paper. After emerging in the 1980s with confrontational sculptures of human figures and body parts, Smith shifted her focus in the mid-1990s to the natural world, depicting birds, other animals, and the cosmos in sculptural works as well as prints and books. For Smith, who was raised a Catholic, birds have a particular significance, both as a reference to the poignant beauty of the environment and as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Here, the authoritative majesty of the peacock’s frontal stance reflects the artist’s appreciation of this rare and magnificent creature.
Smith considers printmaking a vital part of her work, and she has become one of the most innovative and committed printmakers of the last two decades. She has said, “I could just make prints and be satisfied.” To date, Smith has published over 150 prints and books, in formats ranging from monumental multimedium prints and elaborate livres d’artiste to screenprinted tattoos and rubber stamps. When she began working with imagery of birds and other animals, Smith discovered the detailed, refined line available in etching, and found it an irresistible medium for describing feathers and fur. In Peacock, her markings are so dense as to almost obscure the bird’s face and body and turn the image into an abstraction. The formal delicacy of this work is enhanced by Smith’s overt passion for the inherently tactile qualities of paper—a material that she has explored extensively in sculpture. Smith likes to work with translucent, skinlike sheets of handmade paper, folding them, pasting them together, and otherwise manipulating them in inventive and unexpected ways.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 364.
Kiki Smith is among the most innovative sculptors and printmakers of the contemporary period, emerging in the 1980s amid a resurgence of interest in the figurative tradition. An ardent collaborator, she has been a committed printmaker since the mid-1980s and has completed more than one hundred fifty published prints and books in formats ranging from monumental multimedia prints and elaborate livres d’artistes to screenprinted tattoos and rubber stamps. Photography has also played an important role in her printmaking, particularly in the numerous self-portraits she completed in the 1990s at Universal Limited Art Editions and her most recent forays with digital prints at Pace Editions. Smith blurs the boundaries between prints and drawings, since many of her unique works on paper are printed.
In her earliest work she addressed the fragility yet enduring spirit of life in stark, poignant depictions of internal and external fragments of the human body. Representing the body was Smith’s way of learning about it and showcasing the importance of corporeal concerns. In Sueño she depicts the flayed body of a figure, revealing the musculature of this huddled form. Exemplifying her sculptural approach to printmaking, Smith used her own body as the template, lying on the copperplate and allowing the printers to trace her outline.
In the mid-1990s she shifted her focus to the natural world, depicting birds, animals, and the cosmos in sculpture as well as prints and books. Birds have been of particular interest to her, both personally and symbolically, as a reference to the Holy Spirit. Peacock is the most commanding example of the many specimens she sketched in natural history museums, and later printed on several sheets of textured handmade paper in varying formats.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Wendy Weitman, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 256.