Los Angeles

Eleanor Antin

Orlando Gallery

The only true conceptual exhibition is Eleanor Antin’s at Orlando. According to Lizzie Borden’s concise and workable definitions in “Three Modes of Conceptual Art,” Artforum, June, 1972, Antin practices the least radical: “actions performed in the past and documented in the present through the use of photographs, lists, notes, blueprints, etc.” The actions in this show are: 1) “a strict regimen of diet and exercise” resulting in the loss of nine pounds in thirty days—documented by 120 photographs, four views a day, of Antin in the nude; 2) a face-cleansing and make-up session—documented by a sharp, professional videotape; and 3) a “forced,” extended psychological encounter with her mother—documented by a kind of psychic electrocardiogram, ranging from restful pleasantness (pleasant restfulness?) to hysteria. All of them amount to a takeoff, or play, on “traditional art,” which I take to be humorous (but not very—it’s like a horse in rigor mortis), but presented altogether seriously. The photos are “sculpture,” and the process is “carving” (fine arts carving, in fact, in which the Greek or Renaissance sculptor takes a little bit off from all over); the make-up business is “representational painting” because her painted face “represents” her to the world) and has some poignancy because of the Women’s Movement (i.e., “Omigod, look what we’ve put the poor creatures through,” etc.) and because of Antin’s beautiful, sorrowful face on the screen. Finally, and least obvious, the psychograph is “drawing,” but letterforms, graphs, maps, typing, etc., as drawing, have been around for a long time. Freed of its allusions (how strongly should an artist be tied to the title of her show, even if it’s conceptual?) the work might be more authoritative, but I don’t think so. The little I know about information theory isn’t enlarged by Antin’s autobiographical material; it seems conventionally literary to me. I mean, doing a number on the tiny, moving odysseys of the body, skin, and spirit would work better culled with the selectivity of Henry James’ “psychological moments,” or at least the completeness of Portnoy’s confessions, rather than the arty banality of Warhol’s repetitiveness and egalitarianism.

Credit where due, however, and Antin is tackling the toughest obstacle to good academic art: a disciplined lack of window-dressing. A few generations of object art can be finessed by merely moving stuff around, but dematerialized (Process) and Conceptual art purport to maneuver on more profound ground. This academy is going to be very short-lived, or its admission standards are going to be very high.

Peter Plagens