Critics’ Picks

Eleanor Antin, Portrait of the King, 1972, gelatin silver print mounted on board, 13 3/4 x 9 3/4”.

Eleanor Antin, Portrait of the King, 1972, gelatin silver print mounted on board, 13 3/4 x 9 3/4”.


Eleanor Antin

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
25 Harbor Shore Drive
March 19–July 6, 2014

From 1972 through 1991, Eleanor Antin invented personas of different races, genders, and professions to destabilize any single identity. Her role-playing was then documented in photographs and videos, which are displayed here alongside various props, notably large-scale flattened paper dolls, the companions with whom Antin enacted her performances. The exhibition, guest-curated by Emily Liebert, begins with perhaps the most discomforting of these personas: Eleanora Antinova, an African American ballerina who Antin claims was once a dancer in Diaghilev’s celebrated Ballet Russes, and is now lost to history. While Antin had an African American dancer perform the role in the 2013 film version of the project, she herself played the part in 1979 in heavy makeup, creating a character that Huey Copeland in his catalogue essay locates “between blackface and passing, those two poles of racialized performance in the Americas.”

Even more than race, Antin undermines constructions of gender, as exemplified by the photographic series “Portrait of the King,” 1972, a kind of drag performance wherein Antin wanders through a San Diego beach town dressed to resemble a seventeenth-century baron, browsing the drug store and entering the men’s room, highlighting the disconnect between the costumed figure and his mundane activities. Videos such as The King, 1972, for which Antin carefully applies a mustache, and Representational Painting, 1971, in which she painstakingly applies makeup, underscore this point, emphasizing the tedium of prolonged spectatorship and exaggerating the artificiality of any identity, particularly that of a desired femininity.

Antin’s interest in gender here culminates in her investigation of the nurse, a figure at once celebrated as altruistic and highly sexualized, which she examines using the characters Little Nurse Eleanor and Eleanor Nightingale, the artist’s version of Florence Nightingale. In the series “The Angel of Mercy: My Tour of Duty in the Crimea,” 1977, photos with fake vintage patina made in the wake of anti–Vietnam War protests, Antin stages the life of the nurse on the front lines and her contradictory obligation to save those who might then go on to kill others. Posing with furrowed brow in period costume in photos like Myself, 1854, 1977, Antin reinforces the notion that identity and history alike are mediated, while wielding a sense of humor that guides our reception of these critiques.