BY Alice Butler in Profiles | 29 MAY 19

Eleanor Antin on Art, Ageing and Grief

In a monographic exhibition at LACMA in Los Angeles, US, Eleanor Antin rediscovers the ‘other selves’ within her

BY Alice Butler in Profiles | 29 MAY 19

In a black and white photograph from Eleanor Antin’s multimedia work The King of Solana Beach (1974–75), a surf-town sovereign – wearing a flowing cape, floppy hat and fake beard – handles three oranges in a local supermarket, deciding which, if any, to consume. The first of the artist’s ‘other selves’ – that she has been creating and enacting through performances, photographs and writings since the 1970s – The King once resided a short ride up the freeway from where Antin now lives, in the hills near Del Mar, San Diego. I visited her there in early 2018. Echoing the reserved tendencies of The King, we didn’t eat much – only nibbled on a small plate of nuts in her glass-fronted studio. Antin’s restraint was a healthy hangover from the all-consuming, unconsuming work she’d recently finished, CARVING: 45 Years Later (2017): a re-enactment of her seminal 1972 project CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture.

Comprising 148 black and white photographs documenting the artist’s gradual weight loss over 37 days from four repeated angles, the original CARVING reimagined the processes used by Greek sculptors of marble, as Antin carved her own body – flesh falling away daily in subtle and magical ways, like a stone block cut down slowly to an idealized figure – through a dieting performance. Providing an upfront display of her disappearing body, the artist became the subject of her own physical transformation and starved, carved labour: a powerful critique of women’s objectification. She told me how her dietary techniques differed across the years: ‘I just cut things out: cake, ice cream, bread. I love bread; that was hard. I didn’t do anything special, but for the second CARVING I asked my doctor, and he said: “Just cut out carbs.” Then, I cut out lunch. It felt fine.’ An accompanying photographic work from the same year, The Eight Temptations (1972), shows Antin refusing food with campy, overblown, feminized gestures.

Eleanor Antin, CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture (detail)1972, installation view, LACMA, Los Angeles. © Eleanor Antin, courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York. Photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA

CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture also hums with surprising humour. When Antin chose to adopt the formal grid of conceptual art (the four photographs from each day were aligned vertically, moving forward in time horizontally) to display the lived, bodily experience of carving, she explained to me that she ‘was laughing at the boys. I call them the boys – the conceptualists.’ Antin was colluding with conceptual art’s minimalist aesthetic to project a narrative that was personal, political and raw. The piece moves between multiple mediums – conceptual art, performance, photography and sculpture  – and it was this seemingly unconventional approach that panicked the selection panel of the 1970–71 Whitney Annual into famously refusing to include it after receiving Antin’s proposal. As Antin remembered: ‘One year [the Whitney Annual] was sculpture and [the next] was painting, which I thought was so old-fashioned. I thought about what I should give them that was a traditional sculpture: a woman going on a diet – very traditional. They sent it back and said, “It’s very nice, Eleanor, but it’s not sculpture: it’s conceptual art.” I assumed it was both. I didn’t go around calling things by names.’ Almost 30 years later, the Whitney asked Antin to show the work as part of their vast two-part exhibition ‘The American Century: Art and Culture, 1900–2000’ (1999–2000) – a request that resulted in another version being produced (the original set of photographs is at the Art Institute of Chicago), which has enabled it to be shown all over the world.

CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture is much-loved in the history of feminist art, inviting return and re-reading. As Clare Johnson writes in Femininity, Time and Feminist Art (2013), the work invokes ‘femininity as an embodied relationship to time’, as the artist assumes the roles of both carver and carvee – working towards illusory perfection, while warding off failure. The 1972 CARVING may be future-oriented, but that doesn’t stop writers and artists retrospectively reaching out to it, Antin included. Through writing, re-reading and the artist’s own re-enactment, the original CARVING has been repeatedly referenced, cited and shared, loved by feminists across time for its rejection of the woman-as-object and of traditional, masculine mediums.

Antin has also referred to the two versions of CARVING as ‘two pieces cut by time and space’, with the memory of one held in the other: an effect of what Elizabeth Freeman, in her 2010 study Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, terms ‘temporal drag’ – the non-linear ties between feminist histories. One craves the other: from craving to carving, an artist’s life on repeat. The politics of representation that made the first CARVING so disruptive emerges with renewed energy in the later version, as the 1970s is remembered in the present moment, where women’s bodies – in all their intersectional differences, including the aged body – continue to experience violence, oppression and shame.

Eleanor Antin (1935-), The Eight Temptations, 1972, installation view, LACMA, Los Angeles. © Eleanor Antin, courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York. Photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA

Antin’s re-presentation of her body – familiar yet disorienting – unsettles the generational impulse in feminism. Decades collapse as she re-lives her own archive. CARVING: 45 Years Later, with its movement between time, space and feminisms, is energized by Antin’s octogenarian openness, playfulness and humour. The system she used to photograph her body remained almost exactly the same: front, back, left, right; standing in front of a white door, toe-nails painted black, long dark hair shrouding her shoulders. But, she also added a fifth profile, in which she wears a functional cream bra to give a clearer view of her body. Her breasts are larger; she has a crooked back due to scoliosis; patterned wrinkles.

When Antin started CARVING: 45 Years Later in 2017, she ‘felt older, but [I] didn’t feel old’ – a sentiment that is echoed in the work’s unflinching presentation of an older woman’s body, with its lines, marks, enlargements, curvatures and shrinkages. The artist’s small stature is overpowered by a luminosity of skin and spirit in these light-grey images. As Antin said to me: ‘The idea of growing older doesn’t have to be some horror. I’ve always found older faces with life on them really interesting. There’s experience on the body, which I realized as I was working on my own body.’ Through its haunting relationship to the original, CARVING: 45 Years Later extends the life of both the artist and the artwork, generating a self-referential, autobiographical mode of art making that is poignant and affecting. When viewed together, the two versions of CARVING, which appear both connected and apart, conjure an ambiguous life narrative of 45 years.  

The decision to re-live CARVING was triggered by the loss of the closest life Antin had to her own: that of her husband, the writer David Antin, who died of Parkinson’s disease in October 2016, and whose ‘talk poems’ also spoke, in broken pieces, of ‘the experience of time      of repetition of remembering      and forgetting’ (i never knew what time it was, 2005). Antin started to carve herself soon after: ‘When I was young, I had this dark romantic prophesy that I’d end up with ten husbands, die of an overdose or whisky. But I was with David for 56 years. It was an incredible romantic and intellectual relationship. We both loved each other’s work. When he began getting weaker as a result of the Parkinson’s, he needed round-the-clock care, and I knew that when he died it was going to be horrible. I didn’t know who Elly would be without this partner who’d been my companion for so long, my whole adulthood really. I knew if I didn’t have a big work to do, I would collapse. I’d gained a lot of weight when David was sick, so I said to myself: “You’ll do CARVING again, 45 years later.”’ Moving freely from the first to the third and back to the first person, Antin tells stories from her life by repeating internal dialogues and past conversations. Her words swirl and stick in the air. 

Eleanor Antin, CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture (detail, first day of 1972 performance, July 15, 1972, 8:43 am, 125.5 lbs), 1972, © Eleanor Antin, image courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York; Eleanor Antin, CARVING: 45 Years Later (detail, first day of 2017 performance, March 7, 2017, 9:25 am, 130.6 lbs), 2017, © Eleanor Antin, image courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York

Antin confessed to me that she waited for 11 pounds to disappear before she could begin photographing: ‘Even though this was about losing the weight, I couldn’t. I was embarrassed.’ She dropped those pounds quickly, but then: ‘It was slow as molasses. It was so hard. I realized that I would practically have to starve myself, which would be doubly miserable, being without David and also starving.’ As we sat together, talking while nibbling nuts, we unravelled the work’s embodied and visceral performance of loss; how grief can be physically spoken. ‘I lost David,’ Antin began, ‘and now I was losing my body as well.’

I couldn’t help but read desire in her hunger. CARVING: 45 Years Later is a meditation on grief, love and the artist’s life: the years spent with David, loving, collaborating; and the years she’s been carving work since. In choosing not to eat, Antin began swallowing the loss of her husband, detaching herself from the weight she gained whilst he was dying, and making a new work in the process. The second CARVING is huge in physical, temporal and emotional scale. (Comprising 500 photographs, it’s almost three times the size of the 1972 piece, and stretches out over 100 days.) ‘It took me about a month into the piece to realize that I was essentially grieving by losing the weight that I had gained while taking care of him. I think that was a strong reason why I chose [to remake] this piece rather than another. Losing this weight – losing part of myself – was a memorial to losing David. It was the perfect work.’

Currently at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, ‘Eleanor Antin: Time’s Arrow’, which will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago later this year, includes four artworks totalling over 600 individual photographs. Alongside both versions of CARVING, it features The Eight Temptations and a large colour self-portrait of the artist in a triumphant, superhero pose (!!!, 2017), taken immediately after the last photograph she made for CARVING: 45 Years Later. Antin shoots arrows through and across time. She creates, desires, an alternative mode of time that coughs up the past in the present, belatedly; that brings death into life and life into death; that carves away flesh to carve the future.

Main image: Eleanor Antin, CARVING: 45 Years Later (detail, first day of 2017 performance, March 7, 2017, 9:25 am, 130.6 lbs), 2017 © Eleanor Antin, courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York

‘Eleanor Antin: Time’s Arrow’ is at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, US, from 12 May to 7 July and at the Art Institute of Chicago, US, from 24 August to 5 January 2020.

Alice Butler is a writer and academic based in London, UK. She is currently Writer in Residence at the Freud Museum in London, where she is working on kleptomania and feminist art.