Art aficionados can retrace Barbara T. Smith’s journey from Pasadena homemaker to performance art pioneer at UC Irvine’s University Art Gallery, which is hosting “The Radicalization of a ’50s Housewife” through Dec. 4.
Featuring paintings, drawings, sculpture, personal letters and a video installation, the exhibit is a tribute to Smith’s seminal 1981 work “Birthdaze,” which she performed on her 50th birthday in Santa Monica.
“Birthdaze” presented three facets of Smith’s life – housewife, rebel and spiritualist – and concluded in a tantric sex act between Smith and artist Victor Henderson. The performance art piece was a stunning break from Smith’s previous identity as an affluent wife and mother in suburban Los Angeles.
The UCI exhibit is part of “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980,” a J. Paul Getty Trust-sponsored collaboration of more than 60 cultural institutions across Southern California to highlight the best of post-World War II art.
Now 80 years old, Smith – a 1971 graduate of UCI’s M.F.A. program in studio art – continues to create thought-provoking work and inspire the next generation of artists. Her art explores issues ranging from feminist politics and avant-garde performance tactics to the study of Buddhism, science and philosophy.
“The first class that graduated from the M.F.A. program was legendary, no question about it,” says Juli Carson, associate professor of studio art and director of the University Art Gallery. “UCI really was the center for conceptual art and performance in Southern California during the late ’60s and early ’70s.”
Smith’s creative output reflects her personal journey.
“She was brought up as a Pasadena society girl and was radicalized by feminism in the 1960s,” Carson says. “Her autobiographical work embodies the artistic legacy of UCI and the time period spotlighted by ‘Pacific Standard Time.’”
The University Art Gallery is open to the public from noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.