The American Way

Men Seldom Make Passes at Girls Who Wear Glasses by Alexis Smith
dimensions variable; wall painting with two framed mixed-media collages, panels: 33″x27″x3.75″, each of 2; 1985. Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Museum purchase with partial funds from Ansley I. Graham Trust, Los Angeles, 1995.9.1-2.


Alexis Smith: The American Way

at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in San Diego, California, USA
15 September 2022-5 February 2023

“Alexis Smith: The American Way” is the first retrospective of California artist Alexis Smith in thirty years. Smith is widely known for her mixed-media collage works which draw heavily on film, literature, and pop culture. Her unique practice has been informed by Conceptual and Pop art and shaped by the Feminist movement of the 1970s, yet she has set out a path all her own and her consistently defies easy categorization. Through the works featured in “The American Way”, Smith presents stories of self-realization and self-transformation—examining the role of these narratives in creating a distinctively American mythology. Featuring work produced throughout the artist’s career, from the 1970s to the 2010s, this exhibition highlights the themes that permeate the artist’s oeuvre, including her interests in gender, identity, and class.

Isadora by Alexis Smith
120″x144″ (backdrop), 14.33″x41.5″ (collage left), 14.125″x48.75″ (collage right); mixed media collage on 2 panels with painted backdrop; 1980-1981. Collection of Thomas Solomon and Kimberly Mascola.

From the very beginnings of her career, Smith’s artistic practice can be connected to a sense of self-invention. This is visually articulated by one of her most iconic works titled Your Name Here (1975), which is a director’s chair with the artist’s name emblazoned on the backrest. Alexis Smith was, however, not the artist’s given name. Born Patti Anne Smith, she adopted the moniker of actress Alexis Smith during her first year of study at the University of California, Irvine as a means of starting afresh. This choice not only represents a clear nod to the resounding presence of Hollywood in the artist’s cultural consciousness—a glimmering world where anyone can arrive to supposedly become someone else—but also reflects her interest in identity and its construction through eliciting confusion between Smith the artist and Smith the actress.

Your Name Here by Alexis Smith
34″x22″x20″; mixed media; 1975. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery.

Smith herself was born in Los Angeles, and has continued to live there throughout her career. It is thus only apt that Hollywood, the very pinnacle of American fantasy-making, should recur as a subject throughout much of her work. Her resulting collages consequently tend to include movie posters, album covers, advertisements, and news clippings. Through her collage, Smith underscores the way that media prop up quintessentially American stories of self-invention and reinvention, built upon shared fantasies and futile aspirations. The 1980 collage, The American Way, from which this exhibition takes its name, combines text from John Dos Passos’s trilogy of novels, “U.S.A.”, with a variety of objects, news clippings, and advertising images to illuminate ideas about consumption and success that appear throughout Dos Passos’s fragmented text while also conveying that the American way is an idea both elusive and disorienting.

(text adapted from the museum’s press materials)


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