Los Angeles

Eleanor Antin

Eleanor Antin left New York for Southern California in 1968. Even though her art has been chiefly handled by a Manhattan gallery, Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, the move proved definitive, and its implications decisive for her career. This was clear in the context of Antin’s recent thirty-year retrospective. The exhibition had some of the incongruities of atmosphere we might expect to accompany the hometown showing of an artist claimed as a “native son”: There was plenty of affection on offer, and not a little neglect. Devoted visitors, for example, were said to have returned for second and third viewings; voluble museum guards dotingly described Antin’s own tours of the installation, even while opining that its modest attendance was boosted by the crowds at a concurrent Diego Rivera show. Meanwhile, press releases, like the catalogue, insisted that Antin is “Southern Californian” and that San Diego is her (adopted) home.

But “native son” isn’t right. That Antin was actually greeted, thank heavens, as a “native daughter” is one major inheritance of the feminist past her work played a role in shaping. Antin’s first performances were staged at the Women’s Building in Los Angeles, while an early piece of writing, “Women without Pathos,” appeared in the milestone ArtNews collection Art and Sexual Politics (1973)—the one with Linda Nochlin’s great-women-artists essay as centerpiece. (Antin’s text, by the way, suggests that her California identification came gradually: Not only does the text label her “a New York conceptual artist presently living in California,” but it also cites her utterly hostile verdict on her home: “California is pathetic. It is Nixon’s world, lethal and very sad.” Little wonder the retrospective doesn’t rake over these coals!)

This feminist history feeds the best-known of Antin’s pieces, Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, the document of a reducing diet undertaken in the summer of 1972. Both the work’s program (a woman reshaping herself) and its ironies (the implicit commentary on social and cultural expectations of female appearance) have long since made it a landmark of both performance and feminist art, and clearly the piece seemed to register with most LACMA viewers as the exhibition’s centerpiece—they certainly picked up the pace once Carving had been left behind. What was less clear was how the work was being read. Along with Representational Painting, 1971, a forty-minute video in which Antin applies makeup, Carving is a piece for which there is said to be a “standard feminist interpretation,” one dutifully supplied by the catalogue: “These two pieces convey the idea that, for women, dieting and cosmetics take the creative place of art and that in this culture women themselves are the art product.” This verdict is a judgment with which Antin’s public apparently still agrees. Yet from what I could tell, the message seemed to strike many viewers less as critical or ironic analysis than as realism pure and simple: testimony to the inevitable order of things. Of course women diet . . . why not? By these lights, Carving can hold on to a feminist agenda only if its irony stays legible. Or only, we might say, paraphrasing Antin, when “female pathos” is kept at bay.

During the day I spent in the Antin retrospective, the reactions of my fellow spectators loomed large. This is an opportunity sometimes presented by a survey exhibition, especially one, like Antin’s, where wide knowledge of a career’s path and range is scanty and its significance is not yet beyond dispute: seeing how others make sense of a subject (or fail to) while you do so yourself. Reactions were hard to avoid: People were sometimes talkative, for one thing, but when they weren’t talking, they were making strikingly short work of the many spectatorial opportunities the retrospective set up. The catalyst for their disengagement was video. Soon after 1971, Antin turned increasingly from a Conceptual and documentary format, including what might be termed Conceptual performance, to a newly theatrical, newly narrative mode. While this shift led to many live performances, complete with elaborate costumes and makeup, it likewise generated independent (rather than documentary) photographic and video work as well. In the late ’80s, Antin began to branch into film.

Thus, a survey that began with installation and Conceptual pieces (they included “California Lives,” 1969, and “Portraits of Eight New York Women,” 1970, Pop-derived commodity works that Antin termed “object biographies,” and the serial photography sequence 100 BOOTS, 1971–73) soon shifted to different ground. I calculate that it would have taken more than eight hours to see from start to finish all the tapes being projected—a feat I myself didn’t accomplish. Most visitors didn’t even make a start. Of course, everyone knows that video is notoriously hard to display and to look at; the fate of Antin’s retrospective (again) proves the point. The show ended up, if not quite summoning, then at least imagining, a theoretical set of viewers rather different from the ones it found in practice, and different, too, from those conjured by Antin’s earlier Conceptual work.

Take the rhetorical posture of the whimsical 100 BOOTS. The piece comprises fifty-one picture postcards. The photographs were taken on several occasions at various locations in and between California and New York, and mailed over two years’ time. Each image is a single vignette, a brief chapter in an ongoing tale in which the boots—synecdoches for active marchers—are positioned in orderly groupings (twosomes, lines, circles) somewhere out in the world. They have adventures, as the titles underline: They “take the hill,” or go “on the march”; they are shown “on the job” and “out of a job,” and soon they “move on.” Eventually, they head for New York, tromping in orderly sequence into the Museum of Modern Art. As, indeed, did the whole suite of photographs: It was shown there for six weeks in 1973. The piece works because each photographic vignette is at once complete yet linked by clear principles to its fellows: There is the collection of boots, with their absent wearers and implied activity, and their comic reinflections of whatever geography they find themselves in—standing two together at a drive-in, sloping headlong down a dip in dry farmland, parading past a string of ducklings headed in the opposite direction. The benign surrealism is precisely matched by the visual wit that invents and stages the narrative; the coherence of each image, in which the boots are animate fragments, allows each stage of the quasi-story to unfold. And if the other striking work of Antin’s first years as an artist, Blood of a Poet Box, 1965–68, does not aim for a similar visual completeness, it certainly has the same strong coherence and programmatic finesse. There is a black slotted case filled with one hundred glass slide specimens, each prepared for the microscope. The slides are labeled by date and name of donor; the corpus collects the deposits of a hundred different absent bodies, reducing all poetic passion and aliveness to the same rusty trace, yet keying the imagination by the selfsame means.

When in the mid-’70s Antin turned away from a Conceptually based practice, her new work cultivated character, personality, and narrative in lieu of the resonant trace. The new values aligned in three invented identities: Nurse, Ballerina, and King. Of these, the Ballerina has had the longest shelf life—the character of Eleanora Antinova is the one Antin has most frequently performed––yet none of these personae come clad with the same imaginative scope and solicitations of her earlier work, at least not where the viewer is concerned. The difference has to do with what registers as a thoroughgoing break and realignment in the artist’s work: Where once narrative proceeded only by implication and invitation (the viewer being asked, for example, to summon poets and boot-wearers at will), in Antin’s performance work she herself now both stars in and supplies the narrative; she takes her story from a borrowed source. In fact, her tales, whether spun around a deposed ruler, a dedicated Victorian healer (the character is loosely based on Florence Nightingale), or a down-at-heel dancer, adopt virtually every aspect of their staging—costume, incident, content—from one historical source or another. Above all, they borrow their look. Antin is something of a connoisseur of visual artifacts, from silent film footage to baroque drawings (the King was a fair enough draftsman, it seems); she can conjure the moods of art photography and the jerky passions of early cinematic bedroom farce. Once, her work was oblique, its taste for puns second only to its love for irony. These enthusiasms, however, have long since yielded to imitation: Antin is nothing if not an accomplished mime. Yet the risks of such relentless imitation are patent: My mind goes back to the younger Schlegel, fulminating against the dramatic excesses of Jacques-Louis David’s later historical mode. “Pantomime” and “haberdashery” were the two main complaints laid at the painter’s door. If the terms also fit Antin’s mimicry, it is because they point to her (melo)dramatic flair.

Yet they also open the question of the purposes behind her revivalism. In a long interview conducted for the retrospective, the artist herself repeatedly returns to this very question, with no little melodrama, it might be said. Speaking of her films in particular, she declares they were all based on “the unpacking of images that have haunted me from my childhood.” And a few minutes later she exclaims: “Ghosts. All ghosts. I have a head full of ghosts.” Is it an awareness of such spooky self-enclosed spectacle that turns today’s viewers away? Who else might be haunted by her version of the past? These questions seem justified, I think, by the sheer difficulty—for all the artist’s accomplished miming—of finding, in her playacting, stock characters, and narratives, some wider rhetorical force.

Anne Wagner is professor of history of art at the University of California, Berkeley.