Monday, October 31, 2016


The artist Kiki Smith and her photographer sister Seton grew up in the same town I did, South Orange, New Jersey, but are younger than I am and their home was in what was a wealthy neighborhood of big old Victorian houses when I was a boy, as opposed to mine which was in what was then a working-class neighborhood of mostly immigrants. I had no idea back then that their father was the internationally renowned sculptor Tony Smith.

I hadn't heard of him when I left home in 1960 but certainly learned about him and his work in my self education over the years that followed. I met Kiki later in the 1970s, briefly, when a composer/artist friend, Bill Hellerman, brought her and several other young women to my 35th birthday party which had mostly ended by the time they arrived in the apartment I rented in what by then was becoming known as Soho.

I don't think I ran into Kiki again until after I'd moved back East from L.A. at the turn of this new century. I doubted Smith, or her sister Seton, who I met briefly once years ago at a function, remembered who I am, but I kept up with their art and certainly knew who they were. But just as the local library and book store had no idea I had written an award-winning series of sonnets about South Orange back in the 1960s after I'd moved away, many locals had no idea who Tony Smith or his daughters were, back then or even today (in recent years one of Tony's sculptures found a permanent home in the main park in South Orange and many locals don't know what it is or who made it).

But that was partially remedied yesterday at a ceremony to honor the Smith sisters on the state, county and town level, including declaring yesterday Kiki and Seton Smith day! in what had been the local college when I was a boy and is now Seton Hall University. It was in the Walsh Gallery in the university's library at the opening of an exhibit of Kiki's art and Seton's photographs (it's all art but I'm trying to make a distinction to differentiate between the sisters).

The latter are monumental in size and people-less portraits of houses and other structures that haunted this viewer and evoked a sense of place so definite it made the title of the exhibit imperative. Kiki's small sculptures of birds on hands, or lithographs, prints, collages etc. of trees or insects or abstractions etc. express her unique vision so unobtrusively you can almost miss the subtle depth and resonance of their power.

Neither the impact of Kiki's art or Seton's photographs can be captured in reproductions, so if you're anywhere near South Orange from now until December 9th, check out this show, and if you can make it, there will be a discussion with the artists moderated by the equally unique writer Lynne Tillman in the same space on December 6th at 7PM.

As we used to say in the downtown Manhattan scene in the 1960s and '70s, be there or be square.

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