American Performance and Installation Artist
Bronx, New York
Summary of Eleanor Antin
Eleanor Antin's work questions the role of women and artists in society, the different identities everyone maintains, and the histories and legacies of contrasting artistic traditions. Her practice prefigures the most important feminist debates of the 21st century and is some of the most arresting and poetic Performance art of the 20th.
Maturing as an artist whilst hanging out with poets, experimental theatre makers and Fluxus artists in the bohemian subcultures of New York in the 1960s, Antin then moved across the country to California in the 1970s. From there she became central in the burgeoning feminist movement of the West Coast, and the vibrant artistic expressions that came out of its activism and deep processes of reflection on the position of women in America. For more than 50 years she has made work with her own body and as different alter-egos, and created installations, paintings, and writing that continue to mark her as one of the foremost feminist artists in the world.
- Feminist politics are mirrored by the varied forms in which Antin works. Throughout her practice she plays roles, developing characters and alter-egos that trouble a stable notion of identity. This helped prefigure and establish feminist notions of both performativity and intersectionality, ideas which continue to inspire feminist art and culture today and are still core to feminist political thought in the 21st century.
- Antin's training as an actor and association with poets and theatre-makers influences the humor, confidence, and depth with which she immerses herself in her alter-egos. Unlike many performance artists, Antin is happy to acknowledge the relationship between her practice, theatrical traditions, and techniques of acting, building conceptual connections between disciplines that are sometime placed in opposition. She is also the first performance artist to combine a durational project with a fictional narrative in her work 100 Boots.
- For Antin, a conceptual artist must be free to cross mediums, genres, and other boundaries in order to create work which is "intelligent and fun, amusing, startling". This diversity has been inspirational to generations of later artists, who Antin encourages to consider their practice as an ever evolving and experimental dialogue rather than something that has to adhere to a single style in order to be an effective "brand".
- In later life, Antin has revised earlier pieces and begun to reinterpret them. Whilst this reflects her long-term commitment to interrogations of identity, it also corresponds to a greater institutional tendency towards reproduction of canonical pieces of Performance art, such as the recent reperformances of Marina Abramović. Unlike some other performance artists, Antin is interested in exploring the potential of this embodied archiving, reinhabiting her previous pieces with the same body at different ages.
Progression of Art
Blood of a Poet Box
For this, Antin's first foray into Conceptual art, she collected blood samples from one hundred poets whom she knew personally, including her husband, David Antin, as well as John Cage, Jerome Rothenberg, John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In this project, Antin used the the term "poet" loosely, implicitly questioning the boundaries and parameters of that term. The blood samples collected also included artists, performers, and dancers, like Carolee Schneemann, Yvonne Rainer, Philip Corner, Allan Kaprow, and Alison Knowles. These samples were then placed into a green, brass-hinged slide box that she found in a medical supply shop in Manhattan. A handwritten list of sample contributors was pasted on the underside of the lid. It took Antin three years to collect all one hundred samples, and many were collected at the poetry readings and avant-garde performance events that Antin and her friends attended in New York, with Antin using a sewing needle to prick the skin and draw blood. The project and its title was inspired by Jean Cocteau's 1930 avant-garde film Blood of a Poet.
Art historian Lucy Bradnock notes that although Blood of a Poet Box "has received little scholarly attention", it is "a crucial work in Antin's oeuvre", and can be considered, essentially, a "group portrait" that "offers a glimpse of the creative circles in which Eleanor Antin and her husband David moved in the years leading up to their relocation to California in 1968". It was shown alongside a series of collages at Antin's first exhibition, where critic Grace Glueck declared it the show's "star exhibit". However, as Bradnock explains, the gallery itself (housed on a Catholic college campus) "expressed dismay at the work and asked that it be removed from the exhibition, reflecting a sensitivity, perhaps, to the way in which Antin's blood samples mimicked the format of religious reliquaries and other sacred imagery."
Bradnock recognizes that "Antin's choice to represent her subjects via the intimate act of blood-giving points to a sort of familial bond and it is important to note that Antin was very much a part of this group. In many ways the poetry and performance scene in 1960s New York was a close-knit community that stood in as an alternative urban family". Artist and curator Carlene Meeker asserts that Blood of a Poet Box "is an elegant example of Antin's respect for art and life, her love for artists, and a play on the Romantic ideal of the inner artist as being a poetic, creative soul who gives no less than his lifeblood to make art." Braddock also observes that "In its unconventional approach to the traditional genre of portraiture", the work "relates closely to two series of 'consumer portraits' that Antin completed shortly after the box, while its exploration of themes of identity, originality and genius anticipates her later works of the 1970s and 1980s".
Wood, cardboard, glass slides, blood, brass, paper and ink - The Tate, London
CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture
Antin's most famous work is a durational performance titled CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture. The project involved her photographing her naked body 148 times over the course of thirty-seven days, during which she went on a crash-diet. The black and white photos, which show her from the front, side and back, were then arranged into a grid, displaying Antin's transformation over the course of the performance. According to artist and curator Carlene Meeker, this work came about at a moment when Antin "perceived that the range of Conceptual art should be expanded to include biography and narrative fantasy, both of which she had already begun to explore, plus autobiography, its interior or psychological explorations, as well as exterior representations and transformations". Antin considered this work to be a form of "traditional sculpture", referencing the way in which Ancient Greek sculptors carved "around and around the figure and whole layers would come off at a time until finally the aesthetic ideal had been reached." As art historian Thomas Folland asserts, "It is not sculpture per se, but the performance of sculpture. We might think of it as sculpture transposed into a living form, which is then presented as documentation - an analytical practice somewhat akin to laboratory research".
Says Meeker, "At first glance it seems Antin is referencing the desire in our society for physical perfection and how women are always concerned with the need to improve their bodies. However, on closer examination, Antin raises deeper, more disturbing issues. She stands before us completely naked, the body of a white Jewish woman, at once a member of two oppressed minorities, one female, the other ethnic. The representation of the female nude is always prone to erotic interpretation, but in this work Antin presents her body as an impersonal object, subject to some type of classification system." Folland sees the work as a possible "answer" to the rhetorical question used one year earlier by art historian Linda Nochlin in her essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?". Says Folland, "Antin's 'traditional' sculpture is a witty and humorously feminist attack on tradition in which women were more often subjects than authors. [...] Dispensing with clichéd notions of beauty and femininity, in this piece Antin presents her body for the purposes of critical analysis (signaled by the detached presentation in black and white) rather than visual pleasure, thereby presenting a critique of the ways women had been depicted in the history of art".
148 gelatin silver prints and text panels - The Art Institute of Chicago
100 Boots Move On
This image comes from Antin's 100 Boots series (1971-73), for which she staged fifty pairs of boots in various arrangements and had them photographed by American photographer Philip Steinmetz. She then turned the photographs into fifty-one different postcards, which she mailed out to approximately 1000 art critics, curators, artists, and other recipients around the world. The photos of the boots form a sort of faux photo diary, or what artist and curator Carlene Meeker calls a "visual epic narrative", documenting the boots' journey from the west coast to New York. Other images in the series include 100 Boots at the Bank (1971), 100 Boots in the Market (1971), 100 Boots Trespass (1971), and 100 Boots out of a Job (1972). Once the boots reached New York, the Museum of Modern Art hosted an exhibition of the photographs and converted one gallery space into the boots' "New York crash pad", "complete with mattresses, sleeping bags, radio, and a front door equipped with a peep-hole and a chain lock".
Meeker notes that "Antin's strikingly original concept completely bypasses the traditional gallery system of art distribution by using the postal system as a means of dissemination. She is the first Conceptual artist to combine serial imagery and a fictional narrative content within a long-term art event spanning two and a half years." Indeed, one of Antin's main objectives with this project was institutional critique, that is, to explore possible opportunities for artistic creation and dissemination outside of the traditional gallery/museum system (thus free from "spatial and temporal limits" imposed on artists by art institutions), and to challenge traditionally held definitions of the "art object.".
Antin was inspired to create this work of "mail art" (also known as "postal art") by the members of the Fluxus movement, with whom she was close. American artist Ray Johnson (who was loosely associated with Fluxus) was the pioneer of "mail art" as early as 1943. In the mid-1950s, he sent instructions by post for others to mail their own drawings, postcards, and other objects to one another, and to galleries to be included in "mail art" exhibitions (the first of which was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970). Johnson coined the term "correspondance art", which he deliberately misspelled in order to emphasize the playfulness of the activity.
Fluxus artists (like Ken Friedman, Daniel Spoerri, George Brecht, and Ben Vautier) also began experimenting with mail art as an inexpensive and unregulated "medium of exchange". The Fluxus artists started out using "mail art" in a more private manner, sending individual, personalized art objects directly to one another. Soon, however, they became interested in the potential for mail art to take on a more wide-reaching, "public" dimension, and, as Friedman wrote in 1984, in "its potential for social change and for contributing new forms of communication to the world" (for example, in the form of newsletters sent out by Dick Higgins and George Maciunas). Interestingly, as early as 1984, Friedman was already recognizing the potential for "micro-computers" and related "new communications techniques" (such as electronic mail, as well as audio and video capabilities) to take "mail art" to the next level. Indeed, "mail art" can be seen as the analog precursor to the myriad forms of collaborative digital art making made possible by today's communications technologies and the internet.
Photo-offset postcard on white wove paper - Art Institute of Chicago
Caught in the Act
In the 1970s, Antin began inventing alter egos, or what she calls "Selves", in order to explore issues of age, gender, race, class, and ethnicity. Antin sees these characters as deriving from her interest in the transformational nature of the self, stating, "I was interested in defining the limits of myself. I consider the usual aids to self-definition - sex, age, talent, time and space - as tyrannical limitations upon my freedom of choice."
One of these personae was "the Ballerina", a severely untalented, even clumsy, white-skinned ballerina. Said Antin of the character, "I'm a terrific ballerina standing still." For Caught in the Act, Antin staged several photographs, which were displayed serially like the early images by motion-photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. This, and other works that focus on Antin's "Selves", can be classified as "performative photography", or work in which photography is used as an integral element of performance, rather than as merely the means of documenting a performance.
Antin's sustained development of different alter-egos and characters, which she expressed through photographs and other documentation has proven to be one of the most influential aspects of her practice. This influence can be seen in American artist Cindy Sherman's work particularly, who cites Antin as an inspiration for her famous photographic constructions of character and alter-ego, such as the series Untitled Film Stills (1977-80).
Other "Selves" developed by Antin include "the King", through whom Antin can explore her "male" and "political" selves, and "the Nurse", who allowed Antin to explore the issue of female subservience in American society. The Nurse appeared in Antin's first feature-length films, The Adventures of a Nurse (1976), and The Nurse and the Hijackers (1977). Antin's favorite and most famous of Antin's "Selves" is Eleanora Antinova, a Black ballerina who struggles with being racially typecast as a "primitive" (characters like Cleopatra, Pocahontas, and the Queen of Sheba).
Black and white film - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D. C.
From the Archives of Modern Art
In this video work of "documentary fiction", Antin presents six short films about her most famous "Self" (or alter ego), the Black ballerina Eleanora Antinova. According to the films, which take the form of faux "archival footage", Antinova "was once a member of the famed Ballets Russes company; returning to the United States during the Great Depression, she struggled to find work and had to rely on vaudeville performances and erotic movies to support herself". The project explores the challenges generated by fame and by institutions and archives, particularly those questions faced by artists as they attempt to sustain their careers whilst carving out a historical legacy for themselves. In Antin's words, the project explores "the slippery nature of the self".
Antin first ventured into video art in 1971 when she created the video Representational Painting, which involved her slowly applying makeup for nearly forty minutes, captured by an extreme close-up shot. The act of applying makeup is interrupted periodically as Antin takes cigarette breaks. As curator Lola Hinojosa asserts, Representational Painting "delves into feminist critique by offering a response to the traditional film text found in narrative cinema, in which the masculine gaze tends to represent women as an object of erotic pleasure". Hinojosa views this work as "situated along the lines of the very important critical theory developed shortly thereafter by Laura Mulvey" and as reflecting on "the subjection of women obliged to follow the conventionalisms set by society regarding female beauty". Similar topics are explored by the artist's performance as Antinova in From the Archives of Modern Art, introducing a racial dynamic and prefiguring feminist conversations around intersectionality.
Eleanora Antinova appeared in numerous works by Antin over the years, including photographs, installations, silent films, performances, drawings, and more. In the 1980s activist Michelle Cliff described the use of blackface in Antin's performances as Antinova racist, although other critics (such as Huey Copeland) have suggested that whilst it is unpalatable to modern understanding of racial appropriation, the critique of racism and inequality Antin stages is politically astute.
Video - Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Artist's Studio
This color photograph, from Antin's series Helen's Odyssey (2007), shows the aftermath of the Trojan war, with several bloody bodies laying dead or dying on a rocky battlefield. Two women stand to the right-hand side, one in a bright orange dress, the other in red, both wearing designer sunglasses and carrying mass-produced woven purses. One bloody warrior reaches toward the women as if asking for help. However, the two women appear entirely uninterested in the violent scene, laughing as they look back over their shoulders at the wounded men.
In this series of nine images, Antin wanted to reconstruct the ancient world while simultaneously evoking aspects of the contemporary world. She says, "In photography I can invent anything I want." She also wanted the staged images to appear like paintings. Similar images can be found in Antin's earlier series, The Last Days of Pompeii (2001-02) and Roman Allegories (2004-05). Images in these series present scenes of sumptuous banquets, battles between gladiators, young girls languishing in garden baths, and other scenes from an imagined, decadent, and long-lost Roman Empire. In the Helen's Odyssey series, she felt it necessary to represent Helen of Troy through two women. One, the blonde, is the seductive Helen, while the other, the brunette, is the diabolical Helen.
Critic Eleanor Heartney calls these theatrical images a "playful homage both to the extravagances of 19th century salon paintings (like Thomas Couture's Romans of the Decadence) and to the Hollywood costume dramas inspired by the story of Rome in decline". The photos were taken around the San Diego area. As the artist explains, "A few years ago while driving down the scenic route, I suddenly realized how similar La Jolla is to the Bay of Naples. While there are some differences, I was struck by the parallels between Pompeii and San Diego - the weather and a thriving affluent community. Both cities also have a tightly packed population sitting on the edge of disaster, Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius and San Diego with the numerous fault lines that run through the county and the ongoing problem of coastal erosion. There is a lyrical relationship of beautiful glamorous people living the good life on the verge of extinction."
Chromogenic print - Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, New York
Biography of Eleanor Antin
The artist now known as Eleanor Antin was born Eleanor Fineman to parents Sol Fineman and Jeanette Efron in 1935. Sol and Jeanette were Polish Jews from the village of Rosch (which was later destroyed by the Nazis) who emigrated to New York shortly before Eleanor's birth. Both parents were Marxists and atheists. Jeanette, who was a communist with a strong affinity for all things Russian, had been an actress in the Yiddish theatre in Poland, and later became a creative businesswoman and entrepreneur in the United States, eventually owning several hotels and resorts. Sol worked in the garment industry.
Eleanor had one sister, Marcia, who was five years younger. After Marcia's birth, their mother suffered from severe postpartum depression and was institutionalized, resulting in the girls being sent to an orphanage, which euphemistically branded itself as a 'charity institution' to avoid the negative connotations of that label. Eleanor struggled so much with the regimented environment that after two weeks her father brought her home. She then went to stay with an aunt for several months until her mother was well enough to come back to the family.
As a child, Antin and her sister took piano lessons, though Eleanor lacked her sister's talent and soon quit. She spent much of her childhood riding her bicycle around the Bronx, reading books, and making and playing with paper dolls. Antin was a good student and was placed in the gifted program at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts on the Upper West Side of New York. Her mother took her and her sister on frequent visits to museums and galleries, and to concerts at Carnegie Hall.
Antin says that "When I was a kid, I didn't know what kind of artist I was. I knew I was an artist, I just didn't know if I was an actor, I didn't know if I was a writer, I didn't even know if I was a painter. I was fortunate that I grew up as an artist in a time when all the barriers were falling down. It was a time of invention and discovery. I was lucky." She notes that her mother "thought that being an artist was the greatest because she had been an actor and always missed it. They were the best days of her life". Her parents divorced when she was in high school and she moved with her mother and sister to 109th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam, in what she called "drug city".
Education and Early Training
From 1954 to 1956, Antin attended the New School for Social Research, where she studied philosophy, also studying acting at the Tamara Daykarhonova School for the Stage. During this time she was registered in the actors' union Equity and worked as an actress under the stage name Eleanor Barrett for director Ossie Davis. She also modelled for painters Isabel Bishop, Moses Soyer, Jack Levine, and Ruth Gikow. In 1957 she decided to quit school and spent a year working as an actress with a traveling company in the play Bus Stop by American playwright William Inge.
Antin then attended City College of New York, where she majored in writing and minored in art, graduating in 1958. It was there that she met poet David Antin, whom she would marry in 1961. It was also around this time that Antin first made contact with the artists of the Fluxus group. Though she did not wish to become a member, she attended their events and exhibitions. The group was a significant influence upon Antin's move to explore Conceptual art, from around 1965. Up to this point she had primarily been working as a painter and assemblage artist.
Antin and her husband lived on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village, across the street from Caffe Cino, a popular spot for poetry readings and a center for the burgeoning artistic scene in the area at the time. They also frequented poetry readings and experimental theatre events at other venues in Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side, including the Five Spot Café jazz club, the Tenth Street Coffeehouse, Les Deux Mégots, Café Le Metro and the Poetry Project founded by Paul Blackburn at St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery. Antin was deeply immersed in this bohemian environment, making friends and engaging with the innovations in music, theatre, poetry and visual art that were all around her.
Antin's own work from the mid-1960s reflected this diversity. It included performances (including durational performances), performative photography, film/video, multimedia installations and assemblages, paintings, and novels. She held her first exhibition in 1968 at Long Island University's Brooklyn Center. It was titled Flower Power: Eleanor Antin: Collages and Constructions.
In 1967, Antin gave birth to her son, Blaise, named after modernist French poet, novelist, and art critic Blaise Cendrars. The following year, the family moved to San Diego, as her husband David had been offered a faculty position in the Critical Studies department at the University of California at San Diego. From 1974 to 1975, Eleanor taught at the University of California at Irvine (UCI), before becoming a faculty member in the Visual Arts department of the University of California at San Diego from 1975 to 2002.
In California, Antin became very active in the Feminist movement, and frequently participated in the activities of the Woman's Building, an arts education center in Los Angeles. Much of her work in the 1970s and 80s included alter-egos or characters of different experiences, races, and professions, who she would explore across the different mediums she worked in. In doing so she argued that the identity categories which govern the roles of people within society are unstable and fluid. This helped establish the principles of performativity that continue to shape and influence Feminist art practices today.
Antin was recognized by her peers as a leading figure in the development of these ideas. Her image was included in Mary Beth Edelson's 1972 collaged poster Some Living American Women Artists, for example, which presented the images of several contemporary female artists, like Alma Thomas, Yoko Ono, Faith Ringgold, Agnes Martin, and Alice Neel, as characters in Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper.
Antin's work grew in profile and popularity throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, appearing in a wide range of group exhibitions and major festivals and biennales. In 1997, Antin received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and the following year she won a Media Achievement Award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. In common with many performance artists of her generation, it was not until the early 2000s that museums began to seriously consider the unique position of performance work like Antin's in their collections, a process which has seen her work be acquired for the permanent collections of the Whitney, MoMA and other major American and international institutions.
Antin continues to advocate for the position of female artists and the role of women in society, contributing statements about the discrimination and marginalisation that still exists today to publications, catalogues, and books. She received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women's Caucus of the College Art Association in 2006 for her activism and commitment to pursuing feminist ideals through her art. In 2019 she revisited one of her most famous pieces CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture, recreating a piece originally performed in her thirties as an octogenarian artist. Since the early 2000s her work has also begun to engage with urgent questions of climate catastrophe and war, often drawing on classical and art history to develop large scale photographic works that stage classical scenes as an allegory for events like the Iraq War.
Antin's husband David passed away in 2016. She currently lives in Southern California with her son Blaise, his wife, Cindy Laskin Antin, and their son Zachary.
The Legacy of Eleanor Antin
Antin's work from the 1960s to the present has been pioneering, particularly in relation to feminist discourses, Performance and Conceptual art. As artist and curator Carlene Meeker writes, Antin is a "seminal figure in the history of performance art", and "one of the most prolific artists of the last several decades, moving freely in many forms of media, including live and Installation art, independent film, photography, video, drawing, painting, and writing". Her earliest works, like Blood of a Poet Box (1965-68), explore the ways in which Conceptual art can be used to explore the idea of identity in new, immaterial ways. Her 1972 work CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture, and her 1971-73 series 100 Boots represent some of the earliest examples of durational performance and long-term conceptual projects.
Antin's numerous works that experiment with her different alter-egos or "Selves", which began in the 1970s, represent some of the earliest examples of the use of performative photography in feminist explorations of identity. This use of performative photography heavily influenced a generation of later feminist artists, such as Cindy Sherman. Meanwhile, the physical modification and documentation of the artist's own body in Carving: A Traditional Sculpture directly influenced the French artist ORLAN, who has used plastic surgery in and as her own Performance art, as well as Canadian-American artist Cassils, whose durational performance Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture (2011-13) chronicled the artist's bodybuilding journey over several months and borrowed from Antin's title.
At a conceptual level, these pieces together build a philosophy of identity as performative. This was an idea that wouldn't be fully elaborated in academia by feminist theorist Judith Butler until the late 1990s, and so was prefigured by Antin's artistic practice. This early expression of a concept later fleshed out extensively by feminist scholars is also apparent in the connections between Antin's work and an understanding of intersectionality. This concept suggests that different identity positions interact and influence the treatment that people both receive from others and perceive around them (such as suggesting that a white woman will experience misogyny in a different way to a black woman, for example). This idea is implicit throughout much of Antin's work in the 1970s and 80s, and yet the theory of intersectionality was not fully articulated until the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s. Antin's work therefore embodied these concepts well before they were popularized and is as a result often used as an example to illustrate these theories in higher education contexts.