The 74-year-old Alexis Smith was a prominent member of the Los Angeles art community. Her collages explored celebrity culture and mythology in California. Her representative in New York, Garth Greenan Gallery, confirmed her passing on Wednesday.
Smith’s work, which is full of humor and a sly sense of irony, is highly regarded on both the East and West Coasts for its ability to cut through the superficial layer that has frequently surrounded ideas of Los Angeles. She reached the core of the hollow nostalgia that accompanies these things by repeatedly citing classic Hollywood actors and films, as well as the writings of the Beat movement.
Throughout the process, Smith also delved into the concept of identity itself, demonstrating her ability to continuously transform herself to suit her preferences, akin to Marilyn Monroe and other Hollywood luminaries.
She created installations, collages, and conceptual artworks using pre-made images and objects that she had accumulated over the years. Although many critics felt Smith’s work was far less steely than that of the Conceptualists and the Pictures Generation in New York, her work was in that sense in sync with their work at the time. However, some claimed that her work was not quite as warm as that of many of her colleagues in Los Angeles.
In 2022, Travis Diehl wrote in Artforum, “Smith’s acid taste for Hollywood set her apart.” That same year, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego held a retrospective of Smith. “In the 1980s and even now, not many people bothered to remember that none of us—Smith, you, or me—can awaken from the American dream. Smith made the decision to embrace the dream’s gilded light and enveloping darkness.”
One of her most well-known paintings, Same Old Paradise (1987), measures 62 feet long and depicts a grove divided by a road that changes into a snake. This serpent meanders toward collaged material that is positioned next to a passage from On the Road by Jack Kerouac that reads, “the whole country as an oyster for us to open.” However, while the Kerouac quote conveys a sense of opportunity inherent in the West, Smith’s painting alludes to something more subtle—possibly a fall from grace. Originally created in partnership with painter Lucia Vinograd for the Brooklyn Museum, it was rolled up and stored for many years before being reinstalled at the University of California, San Diego in 2021, where it is still on display today.
Smith participated in three Whitney Biennials and exhibited in “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” a 2007 MOCA LA show that is considered a seminal work in the history of feminist art.
She talked about her work in simple terms, even with all the accolades that followed. As she once said, “the ordinary things that have to do with the experience of 20th-century existence and a separate subtext of looking for meaning in life” are the subjects of her artwork. There is no right or wrong interpretation—you have to read each piece for yourself. The creative process takes place within your mind.”