Alexis Smith, an artist who expressed a searing though affectionate vision of American culture in assemblages, installations and public art projects, died on Tuesday at her home in Venice, Calif. She was 74.
Garth Greenan Gallery in New York, which represents her estate, confirmed her death. Ms. Smith was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2015.
In her art, Ms. Smith critiqued the American Dream, but bittersweetly, with sympathy for those who chase it.
The installation “Isadora,” from 1980, demonstrates the tender way Smith could convey the flimsy immortality of fame. The work tells the story of the modern dancer Isadora Duncan’s tragic final days in Nice, in the south of France. Two framed groups of pages — one shaped like a Greek temple, the other like the car in which Duncan died in 1927 when her long scarf wrapped around a spinning hubcap — pair lines of text with lone objects. The installation’s introduction is a dried seahorse, the conclusion a ring of red hair. The collages hang on a breathtaking mountainous shore painted on the sort of corrugated strips of paper that decorate schoolrooms. A few white starfish add to a starry sky.
“I’ve made stuff out of everything,” Ms. Smith said in an oral history for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. “I mean, everything you can imagine.”
Smith trawled thrift stores and auctions for her materials. She devoured pulp novels, lowbrow films and tawdry magazines. Her work pivots on elegant juxtapositions between found images and literary quotations.
A series she called “Chandlerisms,” for example, is composed of letter-size collages that caption understated objects like tiny plastic coupe glasses or a fortune cookie fortune with brutally succinct typewritten extracts from Raymond Chandler’s detective novels. “I felt terrible. I felt like an amputated leg,” reads “Chandlerism #30.” There’s only one other element in the frame: a used-up book of matches.
Although steeped in Southern California, Ms. Smith was an expansively American artist, enthralled by people remaking themselves, in Hollywood or elsewhere “Out West,” to the point that, at 17, she took the name of a movie star: Alexis Smith.
“Her subject was really the culture of the United States, the culture that was in film and books, in advertising,” said the painter Vija Celmins, a close friend and former teacher of Ms. Smith’s. “A certain kind of, ‘I will be a winner.’”
Patricia Anne Smith was born in Los Angeles on Aug. 24, 1949. Her father, Dayrel Driver Smith, was a military surgeon, then a psychiatrist at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, Calif. The family lived on the hospital grounds until her mother, Lucille Lloyd Doak, a homemaker, died in 1961.
Ms. Smith studied at the University of California Irvine from 1967 to 1970. In her oral history, she called her choice of schools “the most propitious decision I ever made in my entire life.” There, she fell in with older artists like Ms. Celmins and the minimalist Robert Irwin, as well as the performance artist Chris Burden.
She was among the first wave of conceptual artists to establish themselves in Southern California, rather than in New York.
Her circle included the conceptual artist John Baldessari and the architect Frank Gehry, the art critic Dave Hickey and the poet Amy Gerstler. The video and performance artist Paul McCarthy said in an interview that he considers Ms. Smith’s early one-off artist books — folios in a format
similar to “Isadora” — equal to groundbreaking self-published artwork by Barbara T. Smith and Nancy Buchanan, and remembers Alexis Smith as being critical to the Los Angeles scene in the last quarter of the century.
She is survived by her husband, Scott Grieger, an artist and educator whom she married in 1990.
Ms. Smith taught for two decades at universities in the Los Angeles area and beyond, including several years at the University of California at Los Angeles. She was among a cohort of artists who founded the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1979.
Gradually, Ms. Smith developed a signature mode of combining framed collages and dramatic, hand-painted murals, in which, as Mr. McCarthy put it, “The room becomes like the extension of the piece of paper.”
One landmark installation, “Same Old Paradise,” was commissioned by the Brooklyn Museum in 1987 and is now on view in the Stuart Collection at the University of California San Diego. It is a wide-angle mural in the style of a Hollywood backdrop depicting mountains, orange trees and a menacing snake that is marked like a two-lane highway. A row of zoomed-in commercial photographs framed in weather-beaten wood bear lines from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and punning objects, like toy arrows jutting into space. The mood invokes John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” and Roman Polanski’s 1974 movie “Chinatown.”
Ms. Smith had a midcareer retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1991. During the following decade, she completed a string of major public commissions. She designed dazzling terrazzo floors at the Los Angeles Convention Center — one shows the night sky, the other a projection of the globe centered on the Pacific Rim — and at a stadium at Ohio State University.
At the University of California San Diego, “Snake Path,” a serpentine walkway with scales of slate, winds 560 feet past a miniature Garden of Eden and ends at the university’s library — another parable of personal transformation sweetened by forbidden knowledge.
Although Ms. Smith had said that she did not consider her work feminist in theme, she shot sly looks at popular portrayals of women throughout her career. In 2007, her work was included in the history-making survey “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art and traveled to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington and the PS1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1) in Queens.
Her next major retrospective, “The American Way,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in 2022, introduced Ms. Smith to a new audience. “I was struck by the seriousness with which she treated humor and the everyday,” Anthony Graham, who curated the show when he was 30, said in an interview. “She took things that were overlooked and ordinary and drew out the things that made them special.”
The San Diego show recovered from years in storage Ms. Smith’s 2001 installation “Red Carpet,” which pokes fun at Hollywood’s theatrical glitz but retains its grandeur. The work features a monumental serape rug leading to a mural of a sunset, with all-caps text on the wall: “Heaven for weather. Hell for company.”
Ms. Smith also made a companion work: a panoramic silkscreen print with a serape pattern the colors of a black mesa and a burning sky. The phrase running above it could have been Smith’s motto: “Nothing Is New Except What Has Been Forgotten.” She foresaw culture that clearly.