PRINT February 2012


David Antin’s Radical Coherency

David Antin at Judson Memorial Church, New York, March 1967. Photo: Peter Moore/VAGA.

Radical Coherency: Selected Essays on Art and Literature, 1966 to 2005_, by David Antin. University of Chicago Press, 2011. 384 pages. $25.

DAVID ANTIN IS most often ID’d as a poet, though usually with some qualification: “Poet-cum–performance artist” gives a better idea of what he does, but “poet-cum–performance artist–cum–stand-up philosopher” is better still. In other words, he’s sui generis, the man who reinvented oral composition for the postmodern world, and in a manner that would probably make Milman Parry turn in his grave. Although Antin is now seldom referred to as a critic, he took a prominent part in the artistic debates of the mid-1960s through the ’70s (and has continued to contribute to the field more occasionally since) and has written literary essays of ambitious scope.

One of the charms of Antin’s autobiographical introduction to his new collection of criticism is the way it reminds us that, although he ended up somewhere else entirely, he started out with all the qualifications to be a card-carrying member of the New York School. He was Frank O’Hara’s successor as keeper of the “Art Chronicle” for Kulchur magazine before being referred by John Ashbery to Tom Hess as a contributor to Art News. Other name-checks in the introduction, however, suggest different aesthetic dispositions that give a more accurate prediction of where Antin would be heading: Jerome Rothenberg, Jackson Mac Low, Allan Kaprow—all told, a less urbane and dandyish, more earnest and critical wing of the avant-garde. Besides, Antin was heading west: San Diego called, and in 1968 he began teaching at the University of California and for several years ran the school’s affiliated gallery.

Antin’s social and psychological distance from his friends in the New York School occasions some delicious irony in a brilliant 1970 essay on Alex Katz, the group’s court portraitist. Katz’s portraiture surveys a certain tranche of the overlapping art and poetry worlds of the day, says Antin, showing his sitters as “secret celebrities,” creating a sense that “while you are certain you should know them, it is nearly certain that you don’t.” The viewer therefore becomes something like “the only stranger at a cocktail party where all the others are friends.”

It might seem strange that a critic whose most powerful endorsements are of Kaprow and Robert Morris would also have sufficient sympathy with a more tradition-oriented artist such as Katz to pen such a subtle reading of his work. There are two evident reasons for this. One is what seems to be Antin’s deep-seated bias against abstract art; he speaks of a recurrent historical moment when “things that must have been logically compelling: Greek temple architecture, Roman rhetoric, Abstract art, seem suddenly insane.” Espousing representational painting as well as art of a Conceptual/performative nature enables him to launch a sort of pincer movement against the “suddenly insane” mode that is abstraction, attacking it from two fronts at once. But this is also possible because of Antin’s curiously equable stance toward artistic forms: That animus against abstraction (and its proponents in the world of criticism, such as Michael Fried) aside, Antin possesses an exceptional ability to focus his analytic understanding on art of many kinds without ever seeming particularly invested in any of them. And although this is what gives his criticism its unusual flavor, it probably also explains why he is not as well known as some of his contemporaries: He is not an enthusiast, not an art lover, and he is a proponent not so much of certain kinds of art as of certain kinds of thinking. And this is as true of his approach to literature as of that to the so-called visual arts. When he describes himself as “personally uninterested in myth and song and most lineated poetry,” one can only marvel at what a minuscule portion of the art as it has existed throughout history can sustain his personal interest.

“If we are forced to a theory of art as representation,” writes Antin, “then we will need a new and adequately complex theory of representation, which is to say that we will need a new theory of content.” Of course, we are forced to no such thing, but then his rhetoric at times demands high-handed dismissal of the “unproven and unprovable” assertions of others followed by wildly speculative logical leaps of his own. In any case, Antin’s complaint about abstraction is not exactly that it fails to represent, but rather that it lacks content, that it is a meaningless game. He wants art to do something “fundamentally meaningful” and, tripped up by his own—here possibly meaningless—intensifier “fundamentally,” is easily disappointed by art’s falling short. But as there may of course be more and less fundamental meanings, the same may be true of meaninglessness. In literature we sometimes feel we are becoming aware of a fundamental meaninglessness—say, in the work of Leopardi or Beckett—at the far end of our explorations. One might say the same of abstraction: Tied as it is to the search, however quixotic, for the fundaments or ontology of art, it tends to touch on this same void of meaning, the limits of signification itself. It is closer to Antin’s project, his own talking into the void, than he cares to admit.

Barry Schwabsky is a coeditor of international reviews for Artforum and art critic for The Nation. His most recent publication of poetry is 12 Abandoned Poems (Kilmog Press, 2010).