Keith Smith had his first solo show of photographs in 1968 at the Art Institute of Chicago while he was still a student at its art school. Ten years later, he was included in the Museum of Modern Art's groundbreaking exhibition "Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960," alongside Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, and other giants.
In the decades since, Smith has become known less as a photographer than as a synthesizer of materials — in handmade books (he's produced more than 280 to date) and in prints, collages, quilts, and drawings that often incorporate photographs, along with stitching, tassels, cutouts, holes, and string.
All of these efforts come together in the exhibition "Keith Smith at Home" in the Perelman Building at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through July 8. Curated by assistant curator of photographs Amanda Bock, it presents Smith's art as a reflection of his life.
The works even appear to be displayed as they might be seen if arranged in his own house in Rochester, N.Y., where the Indiana-born artist has lived since 1975. The galleries' walls are painted a distinctly Victorian verdigris green, framed pieces are clustered together, and cutouts of snakes are papered to the walls. According to a wall text, Smith's own library is wallpapered with such snakes, and rooms in Smith's house frequently appear in his artworks.
As a young artist in the late 1960s, Smith was entranced by the possibilities of photocopying, pressing his face against the glass surface of a 3M Color-in-Color copier — and getting his friends to press their faces, too — to produce vibrantly hued electrostatic prints, on which he would draw with a ballpoint pen and make stitches in thread. One of these early works is Self-Portrait, November 26, 1969.
For the precocious Eye Quilt, which he made as a student in 1965, he repeatedly screen-printed a photograph of an eye across a large piece of plain-weave cotton in different colors and patterns. (His mother, who was staying with him in Chicago, kindly completed the quilting part.)
Smith's books, which he also began making in the 1960s, make up at least a third of this show, as they should. They're displayed under glass, but viewers don't need to page through them to appreciate how inventive they are as objects, or even as sculptures. (One can be explored in its entirety on a nearby iPad.)
One book from the early 1970s is said to contain pages of electrostatic prints, but you'd never know from the binding. For all you know, it's an oddly folded man's shirt that is missing its buttons. Another book revises the familiar Janson's History of Art. Here, the pages are backdrops for Smith's collages.
By the late 1970s, Smith's works became more revealing of his identity as a gay man. Like other works from this period, they are frequently erotic and concerned with sexual awakening. Most of Smith's earlier efforts — especially that folded shirt book cover — suddenly seem so obviously repressed.
Compare that, for example, to the watercolor image The Swimmers, March 12, 1979 of nude men swimming in a pool together, or to Untitled, from Roadside Attractions, September 1979, a gelatin silver print of two nude men facing each other to embrace.
The exhibition ends with inkjet prints from three of Smith's books, made between 2013 and 2015, showing portraits of Smith from two books and images of Frida Kahlo from a third.
It's a curious pairing, and the wall text offers little explanation of it beyond saying that "the parallels between the three books suggest that Smith feels a deep identification with and empathy for his fellow artist Kahlo."
This fascinating, thoughtfully displayed mini-retrospective would have been well served by a catalog and more words from the artist.
Through July 8 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Perelman Building, 2525 Pennsylvania Ave., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 215-763-8100, philamuseum.org.
When painter Karen Baumeister died of cancer in 2015 in her early 50s, a career of great promise was cut short. But the paintings she left behind are finally getting a longer look in a two-person show. Baumeister is sharing the two spacious rectangular rooms at Larry Becker Contemporary Art with the paintings of her internationally known peer Joseph Marioni.
Baumeister and Marioni's minimal but painterly paintings play off each other marvelously in this show, her matte and richly surfaced paintings in sherbet colors interspersed with his drippy, glistening evocations of places and ideas and their colors.
Marioni has written an essay on Baumeister's last paintings, copies of which are available at the gallery.