L.A. artist Alexis Smith, a pioneer of art fusing image and text, dies at 74

Alexis Smith (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Times | January 3, 2024 | by Barbara Isenberg


Alexis Smith, the clever, much-exhibited Southern California conceptual artist who winningly combined found images and smart phrases since the 1970s, died Tuesday morning at home in Los Angeles, according to her studio manager, Erin Calla Watson. She was 74 and had had Alzheimer’s disease since 2015.

Smith created art on both an intimate and a large scale, indoors and outdoors, in traditional and untraditional settings. Her imaginative collages and assemblages have drawn on, not just borrowed — and sometimes edited — quotations by everyone from Milton to Kerouac and Gershwin, and also her recycling of such unexpected raw material as silverware, pressed flowers, seashells and discarded brooms.

“Alexis Smith brought her signature wit to spot-on observations about Hollywood, society and politics,” said Stephanie Barron, longtime senior curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Smith’s engaging collages stand alongside the work of her eminent Southern California peers — Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, George Herms and Mike Kelley — as emblematic of her time and place.”

Brought up on the grounds of a mental institution where her psychiatrist father was assistant superintendent, Smith grew up accepting eccentricity in herself as well as in her surroundings. And when she chose to attend the University of California, Irvine, in the late 1960s, she did so when the place was so new there was no tenured faculty and few rules about what was and wasn’t art.

The fledgling UC Irvine campus — an incubator of such radical artists as Chris Burden and Barbara T. Smith (no relation), where instructors included such future art giants as Robert Irwin and Vija Celmins — helped shape the young Alexis Smith.

Choosing UC Irvine when she did “turned out to be one of the defining moments in my life,” she has said. “Irvine was brand new, with a fledgling art department that didn’t have many facilities or technical support. It was really just working artists coming in and talking with us. It was like sitting under a tree with Socrates.

“Before that, I thought art had to be rigorous oil painting and stuff like that. I learned from artists like Bob Irwin and Vija Celmins that it was much more, something that you could invent yourself. And even though it sort of had to fit into a framework of what had been done before, that framework in the ’60s was really loose. Art seemed interesting because you could invent something, and when it stopped filling your needs, you could invent something else.”

Smith reinvented herself as well, changing her name when she was in college. Her birth name was Patricia Anne Smith, or Patti Smith, which she didn’t much like. “I didn’t really feel like a Patti, and I kind of wanted to distance myself as much as I possibly could from my unhappy adolescence,” she once said. “I found out there was a movie star named Alexis Smith, and some funny photos of her I started using in my work. Then, just gradually, I became Alexis Smith.”

The two women later met, and artist Smith said actor Smith “was very nice about it. She bought one of my early works that had a picture of her in it.”

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