Alexis Smith, a key artist of the Los Angeles scene whose collages explored celebrity culture and Californian mythology, has died at 74. Garth Greenan Gallery, her New York representative, confirmed her death on Wednesday.
Infused with humor and a slithery sense of irony, Smith’s art has been prized on both the West and East Coast for its ability to pierce the veneer that has often accompanied visions of Los Angeles. She frequently referenced classical Hollywood stars and motion pictures, as well as the writings of the Beat movement, and then got to the heart of the empty nostalgia that comes with these things.
In the process, Smith also explored the very notion of identity itself, showing that she could refashion herself constantly to her own liking, in ways not entirely unlike Marilyn Monroe or other stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
She produced collages, installations, and conceptual artworks that relied upon ready-made pictures and objects that she had amassed over the years. In that way, her work synced with art being made at the time by the Conceptualists and the Pictures Generation in New York, but many critics claimed Smith’s work was far less steely than theirs. Yet her work was not quite as warm as that of many of her LA colleagues either, some claimed.
“Smith’s acid taste for Hollywood set her apart,” Travis Diehl wrote in Artforum in 2022, the year that the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego staged a retrospective for her. “Not many people in the ’80s—nor today—cared to remember that nobody, not Smith nor you nor I, can wake up from the American dream. Smith chose to love that dream, all its golden light and subtending darkness.”
Her 62-foot-long painting Same Old Paradise (1987), one of her most famous works, features a grove split apart by a road that transforms into a snake. This serpent wends its way toward collaged material set beside a quote from Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road that refers to “the whole country as an oyster for us to open.” But if the Kerouac quotation offers a feeling of opportunity found in the West, Smith’s painting suggests something more insidious—a fall from grace, perhaps. Originally produced for the Brooklyn Museum in collaboration with the painter Lucia Vinograd, it remained rolled up, in storage, for many years, until being reinstalled in 2021 at the University of California, San Diego, where it can still be seen today.
Many of her collaged works were done at a smaller scale. Her “Jane” series, from 1985, featured pieced-together materials culled from magazines, movie stills, and advertisements that all had in common the titular name. Fictional characters, like Tarzan’s Jane, made an appearance, as did real ones, like the actress Jayne Mansfield. Smith implied that there wasn’t much of a difference between the two.
These were interests that Smith held since the beginning of her career, and she revisited them repeatedly. In 2016, she returned to her 1975 sculpture Your Name Here, a director’s chair that had her name printed on it. This was an in-joke for those in the know: Alexis Smith was an actress whose name ended up becoming the artist’s alias.
Alexis Smith was born Patti Ann Smith in Los Angeles in 1949. Her father was a psychiatrist and assistant superintendent; her mother, who died when Smith was 11, had a fascination with sewing and upholstery, and ended up catalyzing her daughter’s interest in art. Because of Smith’s father’s job, she grew up on the grounds of a mental institution.
When Smith was 17, she and her friends were watching television when she saw the actress Alexis Smith and decided to steal the name for herself. With characteristic nonchalance, she once said of the decision, “I changed my name to Alexis Smith spontaneously. People did things more spontaneously then.”
That happened when Smith was a student at the University of California, Irvine, where she studied with artists such as Vija Celmins and Robert Irwin. Irwin, reflecting on Smith’s career years later, Irwin would go on to tell the Los Angeles Times that “the sensibility was there from the beginning.”
“Painting,” Irwin added, “was not, obviously, an option.”
During the ’70s, Smith became a central figure in the LA art scene, linking up with rising talents like the architect Frank Gehry and Maria Nordman. But she felt alienated by the male-dominated programs of many of the leading galleries, even as she had solo exhibitions at top ones, like Mizuno, Rosamund Felsen, and Margo Leavin, so she leaned on women for support. “L.A. was a real boys town,” she told the Times. “All those guys. . . . You could sleep with them if you wanted to, and if you didn’t want to there was nothing else happening. So we leaned on each other and supported each other.”
Early on, Smith began to recognition beyond Los Angeles, with Barbara Haskell organizing a Whitney Museum show for her in New York in 1975. The Whitney would go on to mount a more comprehensive survey of her art in 1991, making her the first Los Angeles artist to have such a showcase at the institution since Irwin received on in 1975. The year afterward, the show traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Smith appeared in three Whitney Biennials, as well as the 2007 MOCA LA show “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” which is regarded as a key exhibition in defining the history of feminist art.
Despite all the recognition of her achievements that followed, she spoke about her work in plain terms. She once noted that her art is “about the normal things that have to do with the experience of 20th-century existence and a separate subtext of looking for meaning in life. You have to read into each piece for yourself; there is no correct interpretation, no right answer. The art is something that happens in your head.”