Kiki Smith was born in 1954 in Nuremberg, Germany, the daughter of sculptor Tony Smith. Brought up in South Orange, New Jersey, she enrolled at Hartford Art School in Connecticut in 1974 but dropped out eighteen months later. Settling in New York in 1976, Smith earned her living over the next few years doing odd jobs. Around 1978, she joined Collaborative Projects, Inc. (Colab), an artists’ collective devoted to making art accessible through exhibitions outside commercial gallery settings. It was during this period that she made her first artworks, monotypes of everyday objects. Virtually self-taught, Smith describes herself as “a thing-maker.”
With the death of her father in 1980, Smith turned her attention to themes of mortality and decay, focusing on human corporeality. Hand in Jar (1983) consists of a latex hand covered in algae and submerged in a mason jar filled with water. Its clinical realism calls to mind a pathology lab or a dissecting studio. In 1985, propelled by an interest in obtaining practical knowledge about the body, Smith studied to become an emergency medical technician. The impact of this experience on her work was immediate and profound. Possession Is Nine-Tenths of the Law (1985) is a series of nine screenprints and monotypes of deadpan views of various internal organs. Its legalistic title alludes to the artist’s nascent feminist concerns regarding the body, particularly the female body, as a battleground for social and political ideologies. Smith offered similarly clinical treatments of human organs in her sculptures of the period, including Glass Stomach (1985), Untitled (Heart) (1986), and Second Choice (1987), a bowl of castoff lungs, liver, heart, and spleen.