Picture the Concept . . .

Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic

Eleanor Antin has gotten past the gnawing anxiety. Or, as she succinctly puts it: "The initial weirdness is over."

Three years ago, when curator Howard Fox called to invite her to present her work in a 30-year retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Antin responded, as many artists do, with a coddled mixture of excitement and trepidation--excitement over an honor that comes to relatively few, trepidation over seeing her life's work laid bare, all at once.

"Actually, one part of me was very interested to see the continuity beneath the disparate look on the surface of things, to see where there was a real internal logic," she recalls, exuding the sheer confidence of an artist whose work has been widely influential for more than a quarter-century. At 64, Antin is a doyenne of feminist art in general, and Conceptual and multimedia performance art in particular.

But the dark doubt was there, too.

"I haven't thought of half of these works in years," she continued. "I thought, what if I look at them and discover my life was a waste? I have David, my husband; I have Blaise, my son; and I adore them. But, basically I spent my time making art. What if it was a waste of time?"

We are sitting at a small table in Antin's now nearly empty studio on the campus of UC San Diego, where the diminutive live-wire has taught since 1975. It's April, and an unseasonably cold drizzle is dampening the eucalyptus grove outside. Between us on the table is a Carravagesque wicker basket of fruit, together with a decidedly un-Carravagesque basket of bagels, lox and cream cheese.

More than three dozen of Antin's works, ranging from single watercolors and photographs to room-size installations incorporating video and film, have long since been packed and shipped up the I-5 to LACMA (the exhibition opens to the public next Sunday). There they will join other examples of Antin's multifaceted work, borrowed from public and private collections.

Several are classics. From the Art Institute of Chicago comes "Carving: A Traditional Sculpture" (1972), 32 self-portrait photographs in which Antin recorded the progress of a 30-day crash diet, compiling a withering sendup of social norms concerning beauty. From the Whitney Museum of American Art there's "The Nightingale Family Album and My Tour of Duty in the Crimea" (1977), a pseudo-documentary suite of 63 sepia-toned photographs, "aged" in tea, deriving from the Victorian-era exploits of Florence Nightingale, originator of modern nursing. And, there's "100 Boots" (1971-73), a picaresque "photo-novella" of picture postcards chronicling the cross-country travels of 50 pairs of black boots, which first gained her notoriety; at LACMA, the boots themselves will also be on display, for the first time in 26 years.

Antin's feeling of "initial weirdness" about the survey of her life's work boiled down to a sudden, unexpected confrontation with mortality--one whose immediacy was compounded by the recent death of her mother after a difficult struggle with Alzheimer's disease.

"I thought, 'Oh my God! I'm dead!' Y'know?" she says now, laughing at the memory of Fox's invitation. "And I am determined to go on!"

Finally, though, there wasn't time for nervousness. Mounting a full-scale museum retrospective takes a huge amount of work, and work has always been a driving force for Antin. I found that out firsthand in 1977, when I was a curator at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, (now called the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego) and organized a show with her. "The Angel of Mercy" included several parts: the two sets of narrative photographs now in the Whitney's collection, which make up an elaborate costume-drama; 20 life-size cutout figures based on the characters in the photographs and made of painted Masonite mounted on wheels, arranged in the gallery as tableaux; and, finally, an hourlong performance, in which Antin, dressed in full Nightingale regalia, wheels around the cutouts and plays all 20 parts in the harrowing tale--heroic nurse, horrified parents, wounded soldiers and the rest.

"The Angel of Mercy" tells the story of Eleanor Nightingale--a character that is part Antin, part Florence, part sheer fabrication. The nurse is one of four personae that were central to her art in the 1970s and 1980s, the others being an Elizabethan-style king, a Romantic-era ballerina and a contemporary black movie star. (The black movie star dons the other three roles--most notably as "Eleanora Antinova, Black Pearl of the Russian Ballet"--adding another layer to the dense construction of fictional identity.) The personae turn up in photographs, drawings, videos, films, performances and installations, examples of which will be in the LACMA show.

In the 1970s Antin's art offered an important, contrary view to the established, Modernist image of the artist as a solitary individual, usually male, laboring alone in the studio to create a visual monologue embodying a singular identity. Her work instead spoke in multiple voices, used collaborative techniques and adopted a frankly theatrical form.

Beginning with 1976's "The Adventures of a Nurse" and "The Nurse and the Hi-Jackers," videotapes in which Antin-as-Nurse plays with paper dolls to enact scenarios of rape and terrorism, many of Antin's multimedia works have been sort of homemade disaster movies. They don't appear at your neighborhood cineplex, and in fact she doesn't always even use film. But cinematic culture, which is distinct to the 20th century, provides an informing logic for much of her art, while mayhem--or at least the inevitability of mortality and loss--is a theme woven throughout her career.

Masquerade was a vehicle employed by many feminist artists at the time, including Lynn Hershman in San Francisco and Martha Wilson in New York. It formed the foundation for important subsequent art, ranging from Cindy Sherman's endless repertoire of self-portrait photographs to Andrea Fraser's surreptitious performances as a museum docent.

Performance art was a means by which women could transform the primary artistic role they had occupied for centuries. Before, women had been mostly passive objects, typically appearing in art made by men. In 1970s performance art, they became active subjects, and they spoke in multiple voices. For Antin, those voices included a projection of self into all kinds of imaginary worlds.

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No social movement has been more important to the direction of postwar American art than feminism, and Antin is a major figure among the first generation of feminist artists. Not, she quickly offers, that she was fully aware at the time that she was even making feminist art.

Born in Manhattan in 1935, she began, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as a painter--"a kind of fourth-generation Abstract Expressionist," she quips, "or maybe fifth"--and went through a rather rambling period of searching out her way. When Pop art came along, she immediately switched gears.

"I was doing big, hard-edge paintings of valentines," Antin recalls. "I made a huge black heart, a huge canvas, and next to it was a canvas half the size--a rectangle, white, with strips of tape in a V, and that was the envelope. The black valentine was way too big to fit into that envelope, which I thought was hilarious."

Then, just as quickly, she became an actress, auditioning and getting work on local television and in small New York theaters. For a young woman with her culturally and politically minded bohemian background, acting seemed a natural thing to do.

"My mother was a communist, my father was a socialist," Antin explains. "My mother had been an actress on the Yiddish stage in Poland, and they were surrounded by Yiddish intelligentsia. Yiddish was a beautiful high culture, though it's known in the United States mostly for its low culture--which is also great, lots of fun.

"I felt I could be inventive in any area I chose. My acting teacher told me that my major flaw was that, if I had to pick my nose on stage, instead of going like this"--she unceremoniously inserts an index finger into her nose--"I'd go like that"--she wraps an arm all the way around her head, straining to reach her nose from behind. "That kind of characterological vice--according to her, but according to me a virtue--remained with me. So I could invent all over the place."

It was the arrival of Conceptual art in the mid- to late 1960s, however, that finally captivated Antin for good. Conceptualism abandoned established forms like painting and sculpture. As the civil rights movement expanded and the body count in Vietnam escalated, Conceptual art was fueled by a logical distrust of tradition, while deriving historical legitimacy from such precedents as Dada art, born of the horrors of World War I.

Walking past a chemistry supply store in Chelsea one day in 1965, Antin spotted in the window a green wooden box for storing glass laboratory slides. A sign read "Clearance Sale."

"It looked sort of pathetic in the window, and it reminded me of [Marcel] Duchamp's 'Green Box,' so I bought it," she recalls, admitting that she didn't have a clue what she would do with her find. "At Christmas, I was substitute teaching in a public school, and a little kid who I guess liked me gave me a little Woolworth's sewing kit. So I used those needles and began taking blood [samples] from poets."

By then married to poet David Antin, she found a ready supply of available writers, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, willing to be pricked for art. Three years later, the box of slides was full, and Antin's first work of Conceptual art was finished.

She dubbed it the "Blood of a Poet Box," after the celebrated 1930 film by Jean Cocteau. Ironically, that filmic meditation on mortality--produced, directed, written and acted in by Cocteau--would be something of a harbinger for Antin's later "disaster movies," produced, directed, written and acted in by her.

Around the same time, Antin was discovering the feminist movement. But she had yet to draw connections among her readings in feminism, her own experience as a woman and the art she was making in a milieu dominated by men.

"I was becoming a feminist, but I didn't know I was making 'feminist art,' " she says. "I was just making Conceptual art in what I thought was a perfectly rational, reasonable manner. I didn't know it looked so different from the boys' art. I never even noticed! But people began to say that this was part of a feminist discourse, and I was reading and began to see what they meant."

The "Blood of a Poet Box" tweaked the mostly male Romantic image of the suffering artist who tragically pours out his inner life to a hostile and indifferent world. The idea was transformed into a literal (and witty) bit of pseudo-scientific analysis of character and biography.

The act of drawing blood also cast Antin, the artist, into the make-believe role of a nurse--then a socially more familiar task for women and one she would track to its source a decade later in "Angel of Mercy," her multimedia performance based on Florence Nightingale.

None of Antin's pre-Conceptual era paintings survive. She's amused, however, by occasional efforts now to cast them retroactively in a feminist light.

"People hear about those," she says of her Pop pictures, "and say that dealing with valentines was a feminist thing; but I never thought of that at all."

And why would she? After all, Billy Al Bengston also painted valentines, and few would regard him as a feminist artist.

Antin was an adult when Conceptual art and feminism entered her life (she was 33 when she finished "Blood of a Poet Box"), which may help explain the almost instant maturity of her Conceptual work. Ironically, though, the emergence of feminism has obscured the contributions of many women to Conceptual art--including Antin's. They tend to get categorized first as feminist artists rather than Conceptual artists.

In 1969, Antin's husband accepted a faculty position in critical studies at UC San Diego, so the couple moved west. She immediately liked California because it was not as restrictive as the narrow world of art that characterized New York. Still, there was something about that time in Manhattan that Antin missed in her new home--and still does.

"It was more discursive," she explains of the 1960s in New York. "People were always talking art, or making 'great moves' or 'wrong moves.' All the little scenes today probably have their own, but something about that big, shared discourse I found interesting. That's gone now."

She's not sure why it disappeared--although one possible explanation might be that, thanks to many art schools and universities today, cultural theory gets privileged over cultural practice. Art and its consequences are often considered of less significance than art's social causes.

"Take literature departments," Antin complains. "They're all currently into doing their own version of sociology. They don't care about literature anymore, it's just an embarrassment. For the 10 years previous they were writing critical theses about critical writers--Derrida, structuralists, post-structuralists--and that's all they wrote about. So writers, whether old dead ones or new young ones, were an irrelevancy. In art now, the writers seem more interested in other writers too."

She witnessed a similar change among her students.

"In the '70s, undergraduates were wonderful," Antin enthuses. "They were crazy, mad people. I even had a priest who took my performance class--all sorts of people!

"Then it cooled down. For a while in the '80s, I found the graduate students very simplistic, very theoretical. They were all so busy theorizing, they never made any art. The theory came first and the art second, which to me is a little ridiculous. It was like Reagan Youth."

What Antin was doing artistically in the 1970s and early 1980s, however, did help create the space for multiculturalism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But the emergence of multiculturalism also generated some heat around her character of Antinova, the black ballerina; she was, after all, a white woman in blackface.

"Well," Antin says wearily, shaking her head, "there's always some nudniks who get all uptight about things. Basically, I've never had that from an African American person. Just white liberals!

"What about Flaubert and Madame Bovary? Obviously he had no right to do it. He wasn't a petit bourgeois woman from the South of France!"

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Multiculturalism has also turned around and fed her own work. Simultaneous to the physical deterioration of her mother, the widespread exploration of identity by younger artists led her to forgotten and long-unexamined considerations of her Jewish ancestry. Her silent film "The Man Without a World" (1991) and "Vilna Nights" (1993), a filmic installation using a stage set and three rear-screen projections, both concern Yiddish culture in Eastern Europe, wiped out by the Holocaust. "Minetta Lane" (1995) is a filmic installation that memorializes vanished bohemian artistic life in Lower Manhattan.

Disaster and cultural loss are central to her next project, too: a filmic installation titled "The Last Night of Pompeii." Its apocalyptic vision is intended to be just in time for the millennium.

Working on the retrospective has also reacquainted Antin with her favorite character. We haven't quite seen the last of Antinova, the black ballerina.

"I want to finish Antinova's memoirs," the artist says. "In this 'age of the memoir,' I want my great faux-memoir to come out, with great photographs and drawings of her life. I've done some chapters: Antinova modeling for Picasso and being chased around the studio, being at Dada readings, on the beach at Cannes.

"So I'm going to do that next year. I realize I'm not dead."

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"Eleanor Antin" opens next Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., and continues through Aug. 23. (323) 857-6000.

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