In her new memoir [*The Way to Be*](https://shop.getty.edu/products/the-way-to-be-a-memoir-978-160606-8212), artist Barbara T. Smith describes “sliding around naked in mayonnaise” between pieces of foam shaped like two slices of bread. She recounts reaching for her then lover, a “similarly slathered large, naked man” as they searched for a foil-wrapped piece of chicken. “I had just received my divorce papers,” Smith writes, “and this thing I was doing was soon to be called performance art.”\n\nThe memoir and [accompanying exhibition, *Barbara T. Smith: The Way to Be*], celebrate the career of a long-underrecognized California artist. “Her art, her writing, and her personal life are inextricably intertwined, and we are honored to offer a space for Smith to finally tell her story,” says Getty curator Pietro Rigolo, who curated the show alongside Glenn Phillips. Chronicling her first 50 years, from 1931 to 1981, the exhibition relates Smith’s narrative in her own words—drawn from the memoir, [her archive](http://primo.getty.edu/GRI:GETTY_ALMA21155149520001551), and a series of interviews with the curators—while highlighting her important role in the history of art.\n\nIf nothing else, what Smith’s story says is this: you can create change in your life. It was in the 1960s, as a blonde suburban housewife, the daughter of a successful undertaker in Pasadena, that she made the radical decision to become an avant-garde artist. Married to her college boyfriend, the class president, approved by her father, she had three children and lived in a ranch house in the foothills. And yet, the endless cycle of birthday parties and baseball games depressed her. Life, she writes in the memoir, felt weird. \n\nSoon, after seeking help from a therapist who lived down the street, Smith entered a program of self-discovery. She realized, in psychoanalysis, that her life had been shaped by the classic Oedipal drama: the struggle with the father, both real and symbolic. By the mid-sixties, she writes, her yearly family Christmas card had “nothing at all to do with Christmas” and instead made poetic references to the “Mother’s womb” and “the accoutrements of birth and death.” \n\n\n : https://www.getty.edu/research/exhibitions_events/exhibitions/barbara_t_smith/index.html Then Smith did what many do when faced with overwhelming existential questions: she went to art school. In 1969, Smith, by then newly divorced and in her late thirties, enrolled in the first MFA class at UC Irvine alongside classmates like Chris Burden and [Nancy Buchanan](http://primo.getty.edu/GRI:GETTY_ALMA21176569270001551), who were beginning to define the Southern California avant-garde. She took up Buddhist meditation and experimented with acid. Her ex-husband got custody of the children, denying her visitation and alimony, and Smith worried how she would support herself. She began to live the life of the artist. \n\nBy that point, the work of art was no longer confined to the gallery; its substance not materials like paint or clay, but the artist’s own vulnerable body. “No longer were we part of the long history of framed paintings on the wall; art could be anyplace by any means out here in the real world,” Smith writes. “Art was not captured in an image but was the result of an action or idea in the artist.” The philosophy was to create an experience that could only exist in that moment. \n\nLike her classmate Chris Burden, who became known for having someone shoot him at close range with a .22 rifle, Smith found her calling in acts of intense vulnerability—pushing oneself to the most extreme physical limit. In the era of love-ins, when sexuality was celebrated as a liberating force and “instinctive, immediate lovemaking was the norm,” Smith channeled what she called her “rampant eros,” departing from the role of the docile housewife entirely.\n\nIn her iconic performance *Feed Me*, created in 1973, she sat naked in a women’s restroom and invited visitors to “nourish” her in whatever form they wished, with her consent, from sharing joints and cups of tea to having sex. In this work and others, she was interested in those instances when convention, our ordinary social roles, slid away to reveal a deeper truth. “I believe the only moments when you touch reality are during those times when you completely let go of control,” she writes.\n\nSmith’s work became part of the growing feminist art scene. With the founding of women-led creative spaces like the [Woman’s Building](https://www.getty.edu/news/getty-awarded-save-americas-treasures-grant-to-process-and-digitize-archives-womens-building/), where Smith exhibited, Los Angeles was a hotbed of feminist art. Smith collaborated with pioneers of the movement, like [Judy Chicago](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7NVRl2lWpmU) and [Suzanne Lacy](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7s2Qyx5H_4), but felt her work was more personal and transformative. \n\nWhile many of these works addressed issues like [domestic labor](https://www.getty.edu/news/mother-art-and-the-politics-of-care/), [nuclear war](https://blogs.getty.edu/iris/the-sisters-of-survival-and-the-spectre-of-extinction/), [wage inequality](https://www.getty.edu/news/what-is-the-breast-dress/), or sexual assault, Smith’s art was never overtly political. “Instead, I believe the practice of women making art is political in and of itself,” she writes. She was drawn more toward the universal—spiritual themes of sustenance and denial, sexuality and death—as she navigated her experiences as a woman, artist, mother, and daughter. And, her preoccupation was often men: how men saw her and she saw them, the attachments and disappointments caused by heterosexual relationships, and the patriarchy in general. “I thought often of Aphrodite,” she writes. “I saw her as the archetype I carried: she who catalyzes men’s growth, who never marries.”\n\nThe exhibition ends with documentation of the performance *Birthdaze*, what Smith viewed as the natural completion of the creative trajectory that began with Feed Me. The performance, enacted in honor of her 50th birthday, involved Smith blasting into a room on the back of a motorcycle driven by a former lover, and ended in ritual tantric sex. While the expression of older women’s sexuality especially is taboo, Smith’s work embraces female desire, long repressed by centuries of patriarchal culture, as a radical act. \n\n“Initially, my practice came out of the need to heal my erotic/spiritual life, which effectively culminated in *Birthdaze*. I recognize Eros as the fundamental energy of life, but the self-protective and conventional aspects of me still feel anxiety and doubt,” she writes. Her performances required overcoming the ingrained shyness surrounding her body and its desires. “Nevertheless, I continue to be open on behalf of women everywhere, preferring transparency over privacy.”\n\nNow, Smith’s brave and pioneering art is finally getting its due. While many of her contemporaries eventually turned to video or installation art, she remained dedicated to creating performances without many lasting traces. The exhibition offers an unprecedented look into her practice, thanks to the Getty Research Institute’s [extensive collection of her sketchbooks, letters, and diaries](https://www.getty.edu/research/special_collections/notable/bt_smith.html)—including the [Coffin series](http://primo.getty.edu/GRI:GETTY_ALMA21126910650001551), a group of artist’s books. It is the first major museum retrospective to cover the first five decades of her momentous life.\n\nFor Smith, who celebrates her 92nd birthday this July, eros and inevitable death are two sides of the same cosmic journey, an endless process of becoming. Life is always being recycled and transformed. “Life, both cyclic and transcendent, is basically a constant return, and we all participate from source to form and back again,” she writes. “Life is life is life.” ### Watch *The Way To Be: Barbara T. Smith's Art of Transformation* <iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/zT61SpQiwHE" title="YouTube video player" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture; web-share" allowfullscreen></iframe> [Explore the exhibition Barbara T. Smith: The Way to Be](https://www.getty.edu/research/exhibitions_events/exhibitions/barbara_t_smith/index.html).