Hollywood is a city of reinvention, and it’s not just actors who change their names and origin stories. Artist Alexis Smith, née Patricia Anne Smith of Norwalk, California, assumed the spangly pseudonym of the 1940s movie star when she was 17.
It was an innocent, even humorous, choice but one that foregrounded the direction of both her life and her art. “I think when you change your name…it’s a big statement to yourself that you want to be somebody else,” Smith once told me. “Ultimately, I think that’s what mine was.”
Certainly, the act of changing her name freed Smith to invent visual stories, mining fresh meaning from old movies, books, and oddments of pop culture. Throughout her 50-year career of making collages, she has borrowed broadly from swap meet–sourced tableaux, texts, and theatrical installations. “My artwork is about the real world rather than the world of art,” she previously said to me. “It’s about tracing familiar underlying memories, stories and myths that make up our culture.”
In many ways, Smith relies on the slippery nature of memory, a theme so widespread in literature, to seduce her audience. She has often used the writings of Thomas Mann, Jack Kerouac, and Raymond Chandler, but in a context of her own making. And now, over the past decade, her brain has been ravaged by Alzheimer’s. Living in a Craftsman-style cottage in Venice, with her husband of 34 years, artist Scott Grieger, she can no longer form sentences when speaking.
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Against this backdrop, the arrival of Alexis Smith: The American Way at the recently reopened La Jolla site of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is fortuitous, if not poignant. Smith’s conceptually oriented art has been shown widely, but not since her 1991 retrospective at the Whitney has there been an opportunity to see a complete overview of her work. MCASD owns 11 pieces by the artist, some of which are among the 50 brought together for the occasion. There are also two large public works in the Stuart Collection on the nearby UC San Diego campus. The show went up on September 15—three weeks after Smith’s 73rd birthday—and runs through February 5, 2023.
INVENTING A MEDIUM
Smith and I became friends and neighbors in the close-knit art scene of early-1980s Venice. I wrote reviews, essays, and articles about her work, particularly attracted to the ways she drew on collective memory, before I sensed the early signs of her dementia. Her comments in this story are of necessity in the past, things she told me, often for other publications, around the time when the works in question were created. In that way, this story itself is something of a collage—her preferred medium.
Smith’s art evolved from an unconventional upbringing in a postwar Southern California still redolent of orange groves. Her father was both a psychiatrist and a superintendent at Metropolitan State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Norwalk, and the family lived on the manicured grounds. Her father was 43 when she was born and ill-equipped to be a single parent when her mother died of cancer 11 years later. “I think that it was a huge accidental boon that I was raised by my father, because he didn’t know how to raise me as a girl,” she said. “I think it made me more brave and ambitious.”
Having moved to nearby Whittier for junior high and high school, Smith had modest expectations of becoming a French teacher when she enrolled at UC Irvine in 1966, what she called “a fateful non-decision.” By happy accident, she discovered the Art Department, where her adolescent hobby of making collages of words and pictures was considered a form of art. “As soon as I fell into the art world, I ceased to exist in a vacuum,” she said. The newly developed program had a radical faculty, including artists Robert Irwin and Vija Celmins, and a flexible curriculum. “They gave me permission. They gave me encouragement,” she said.
Irwin, a founder of the Light and Space movement, recalled, “Most students think they are going to learn to manipulate an existing medium. They don’t realize that if they have an interesting sensibility, they’re going to have to invent a medium.” For Smith, that medium began after college as hand-typed texts combined with photos or symbols that were presented as manuscripts to be read. For Clues and Souvenirs (1971), she typed out the plot of a Perry Mason episode but added a hand-drawn copy of a Dick Tracy comic and a Philip Marlowe quote that only frustrate solving the mystery.
As art, such works were viewed as a continuation of Southern California’s often irreverent 1960s conceptual art movement, especially as exemplified by artists using language, like Ed Ruscha or John Baldessari. “I don’t think that I’m specifically interested in Southern California, but I’m a product of it. The place in my work is not so much here but everywhere,” Smith said.
IN THE DIRECTOR’S CHAIR
As the 1970s art world was being redefined by the women’s movement, Smith attended consciousness-raising groups, and her collages increasingly included stories about women who are torn between the demands of love and life, especially career. For example, the text of The Red Shoes (1975) is typed onto pink paper with added sequins and a color image of Alexis Smith, her actor namesake, dancing as fast as she can. That same year, the artist commissioned Your Name Here (1975), her own director’s chair with the name Alexis Smith on the backrest, wickedly taking charge of the stories she was retelling.
Graduate school for Smith consisted of working for Frank Gehry in the mid-1970s as his “Girl Friday.” Being in what was then a modest architectural office helped her learn how to work with others, facilitating technical challenges from fabrication to lettering.
“It had the most important influence of all…which is that they told people they would build things they had no idea how to build. None, zero, right?” she said with a laugh. “The secret is to say you can do it, even if you don’t know how to do it. Right? That’s like the magic key.”
That key opened a door for Smith, and she dramatically increased the scale of her art. Her breakthrough installation, re-created for the MCASD retrospective, was Raymond Chandler’s L.A., shown in 1980 at Los Angeles’s Rosamund Felsen Gallery.
A bale of actual hay signified the rural past. Gallery walls were stenciled with the 1940s L.A. skyline and neon signs that promised adventure. It was the journey of the aspiring starlet or the hopeful hustler, characters often doomed to tragic endings in Chandler’s dark and droll novels. Smith’s black-sandpaper collages referred to the passing highway. She added the evocative text of a chapter from his 1949 novel, The Little Sister, which includes this passage: “I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that has been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights. Fifteen stories high, solid marble. There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing.”
“Hollywood is a fantasy place that has a real locale—here, L.A., where I live. It’s also a place of the imagination.… It’s the quintessential American transformation myth—a nobody one day, and a somebody the next,” Smith explained to Richard Armstrong, then a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, for her retrospective there three decades ago.
In the ’80s, the idea of appropriation was a critical sensation, and a generation of women—Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer—were seen as critiquing the ways photographs and language represented hierarchy and power. While Smith’s art came from a similar perception, she was using actual stuff of the past to make her point. “I think I’m too sentimental and connected to people’s real passionate experience of life to be very interested in deconstruction,” she told Armstrong.
Her studio encompassed Southern California swap meets and thrift stores, a rich trove of common history, from books and posters to household kitsch. “I’m someone who starts out in fine art and thinks it’s not as vital as the real world,” she said. “So I came up with a fine art that has the vitality of the real world.”
Smith targeted the thorny issue of the ways women have been represented in fiction and film in her standout 1985 show Jane at Margo Leavin Gallery in L.A. It included pictures and quotes from a wide range of Janes, from Jane Austen to Jayne Mansfield. Smith, as always, kept the tone light but serious. Pinups and socialites, the repressed and the excessive, royalty and pretenders, all had been presented in some form of fiction, film, or fact.
Anthony Graham, the associate curator who organized the MCASD exhibition, writes, “Smith’s critique is always more subtle and more severe, focusing not on the women but rather the men who underestimate them.”
He cites a large piece from the museum’s own collection. Smith, an avid follower of college football who for many years had season passes to UCLA games, embraced double entendres in her wall painting of Marilyn Monroe wearing giant sunglasses that reflect football players, a varsity letter on the left, and a vision-exam chart on the right. Printed at the bottom of the lenses is the Dorothy Parker quip “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.” Graham writes that “Smith turns the phrase on its head, subverting the sexual gaze to make the men the object of desire.”
Despite showing with Holly Solomon Gallery in New York City, Smith, as a woman working in L.A., had less visibility than her East Coast peers. That changed in 1987 when the Brooklyn Museum showed Same Old Paradise, a 22-by-62-foot mural of the landscape of her youth, sun-kissed oranges and wide horizons, with an open road rendered as temptation but also as a massive serpent. “I needed a metaphor for California and I went back to the Garden of Eden—a paradise of lush plants and opulence that harbors the extremes of good and evil, where ignorance is bliss,” she told Armstrong. Large collages quote a sequence of passages from Kerouac’s On the Road, including “I was rushing through the world without a chance to see it.”
That mural, now on the UC San Diego campus, fueled a two-decade parallel career doing substantial public art projects around the country, including The Snake Path (also at UC San Diego), which uses a serpentine theme as a twisting path leading to a library.
“People who wind up doing a lot of public art have a sort of missionary quality, the civic spirit of people who would like to upgrade the environment,” Smith said. “For an artist, it’s a vehicle for doing something meaningful.”
These huge and time-consuming ventures, which also include the Restaurant at the Getty Center and the terrazzo floors of the Los Angeles Convention Center, were completed at the expense of regular visibility in galleries. That has changed recently. Smith is now represented by Garth Greenan Gallery in New York and Parrasch Heijnen in L.A. And she’s being embraced by MCASD.
The museum’s original 1916 Irving Gill residence has been renovated several times, and it most recently underwent a five-year project that added 30,000 square feet of gallery space with an orientation toward the Pacific. The upgrade was overseen by museum director Kathryn Kanjo, who explicitly wants upcoming exhibitions to highlight “trailblazing women artists from the recent past.”
If much of today’s art is dedicated to personal identity as defined by gender, race, or ethnicity, Smith’s art has explored the construction of identity with all its complications and conflicts. Smith became a ventriloquist in seeking phrases from the past to comment on issues of the present. Despite the intentionally easy appeal, each work should be appreciated for the deep and sophisticated layers of meaning. “You have to read into each piece for yourself; there is no correct interpretation, no right answer,” she said. “The art is something that happens in your head.”•