‘All of us live miraculous lives, whether we know it or not.’ A chat about creativity with Miami artist Philip Smith

The following interview was produced in partnership with Commissioner, a membership program that aims to foster a community of new local art collectors in Miami and share the stories of 305 arts and artists. The interview was conducted by Commissioner and WhereBy.Us co-founder Rebekah Monson and has been edited for length and clarity.

Famously known for being one of the five original artists featured in the seminal exhibition “Pictures” in 1977, Philip Smith was one of the creatives who established The Pictures Generation movement, which went on to fundamentally shift how people view and interpret art. Other notable artists of the movement include Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Laurie Simmons among others.

As a young artist, Smith relocated from his home in Miami to New York. He worked as a writer for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and went on to serve as a managing editor of GQ to supplement his income as a young painter. His unusual trajectory as both a storyteller and visual artist has been captured in his memoir, Walking Through Walls; the book was published by Simon and Schuster and shares his true story of growing up with a father who discovers that he has supernatural powers.

Smith has participated in the Whitney and Beijing Biennials, and his artwork is in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of Art, Boston MFA, MOCA, San Diego, Dallas Museum of  Art, Detroit Institute of Art, and Allen Museum in Oberlin, among others.

Commissioner is hosting a virtual conversation with Philip Smith and Chana Budgazad Sheldon, executive director of MoCA North Miami, on Thursday, Oct. 21 at 6 p.m. Registration is free, and you can learn more about him by reading below.

We are thrilled to have you as our first Commissioner artist of the season. Your history in Miami is long — you were born here, and you left to build an incredible career in New York in art and media, and here you are again. Tell us about that journey.

I grew up in a very different Miami than the Miami of today. Back then, the evening news didn’t even bother to list Miami on the national weather map; it was that inconsequential to the rest of the country. Along with being left off the national weather map, there was no art scene — Miami was an art desert. There weren’t many opportunities to have conversations with other people about art or to show your work.

There were maybe five or 10 local artists at the time and no gallery scene to speak of.  My parents had come from NYC and were members of the Museum of Modern Art.  Every few months a catalog of the latest exhibition would appear in the mail, and instead of comic books, I would study these catalogs for days. Art was a mysterious language that I wanted to learn to speak. My father painted and took photographs that were exhibited in Steichen’s gallery; he was my inspiration to become an artist.  As a teenager, I subscribed to every New York alternative paper I could find to stay informed about the NYC art world.

Realizing there was no chance to be a part of any meaningful dialogue about art in Miami, I left and started a new life in New York which was like Oz — magical and alive. But I also missed Miami. To comfort me, I would have the Miami Herald delivered everyday in New York. More than anything, I missed the tropical beauty of Miami, the light, the trees, the breeze. The environment here is so beautiful. I have traveled all over the world, and people will laugh at me [for saying as much] but I never found anywhere as beautiful as Miami, especially a place that is also a major metropolitan area.

A few years ago, I decided to build a studio and living space here. Now, I basically commute and go back to New York every two to three weeks but produce the majority of my work here. In Miami, I don’t have the interruptions and distractions of the City and can just work.

You’ve had this long and storied career, notably as part of establishing The Pictures Generation with the exhibition in 1977. How did “Pictures” become central to your practice? How has your work evolved?

We were five young artists who were just doing our work without any thought of a larger cultural impact. It was really the brilliance of Douglas Crimp, the curator who put us all together. He visited a number of young artists in their studios until he settled on the five of us. He wrote about our work in a very cogent and art-historical way. It was Douglas who really had the vision that we were all breaking new ground. For decades, no one really cared about the “Pictures” show, but in the last 10 years, suddenly “Pictures” has become a recognized movement.

At the time of “Pictures,” the New York galleries were just showing minimalism or conceptual work. There was very little painting and certainly no figuration. The common thread in all our work was that we were finding images on television, in advertising, in movies and in books that we thought meant more than what they were supposed to represent. Our intention was to bring a different meaning and context to these everyday images. This was in a pre-digital era, so there were no computers or software to transform these images. We had to find ways to reinvent these images and make them mean something else.

Initially, much of the “Pictures” work was ironic or social commentary. Each of us has evolved over the years from that starting point. Increasingly, my work has focused on transcendent metaphysics and mysticism. This was not a popular position to take, although that tide seems to be turning as our culture changes. In some ways, my work looks the same to me as it did in the “Pictures” exhibition.  However, today’s work is radically different from the early work, although there’s still a type of universe of images.  Plus, I finally began using my photographic source material as works themselves. In my mind, it’s all connected even though it may not look that way to the viewer.

Much of my work is based in my childhood. In the ‘60s, my father, who was an international high society interior decorator, suddenly discovered that he could talk to the dead and heal the sick. As a kid I was surrounded by seances, talking spirits, and miracle cures. This was my reality. I have also been extremely fortunate to travel to the great centers of ancient culture and to spend time with their astonishing architecture and very powerful works of art that have lasted thousands of years and been a part of the human cultural DNA.

Whether it was seeing work in Egypt or Burma or Peru, these ancient creations had a profound effect on me. As a result, I take my responsibility as an artist very seriously. My job is to communicate and share a vision with the viewer, and I want that experience to move people to the light. In Tibet, the monks make paintings called thangkas. Usually, these are pictures of Buddha, but their purpose is to create a sense of enlightenment or a blessing in the viewer. In some small way, I hope my work accomplishes a similar mission.

Art has always been about communicating ideas, originally to pre-literate societies. The Sumerian rulers, the Egyptian pharaohs, and the Church had to communicate a sense of awe as well as a sense of the social and religious order to their populations. Art has evolved and serves a different purpose now. However, all of us live miraculous lives, whether we know it or not. One of art’s jobs is to communicate that sense of the miraculous, of wonder. That is the job I want to do.

In addition to your work as an artist, you also wrote a memoir about your dad. You also wrote for magazines such as Interview and GQ. What was that like to balance careers in writing and visual arts? 

My paintings are also a kind of visual language. They are involved in storytelling, although in a different way from my writing. While the paintings are not made of sentences or paragraphs, there is an innate structure and logic to each piece and they are a pictographic language. Writing in words is much more difficult for me than writing in images. It requires a different portion of my brain. When I wrote the book about my father, I thought the first draft was great, and then I went back to read it and none of it made any sense. I was just putting words on paper. It took about fifteen versions of the book to get it right. I had to learn to communicate in a pictorial way with words; it was a challenge, but I think I did it.

You can engage more with Philip Smith’s work by visiting the Commissioner website and attending his free virtual talk with MoCA North Miami Executive Director Chana Budgazad Sheldon on Thursday, Oct. 21.