Photographer Eleanor Antin is one of the most important artists of her generation and a pioneer of performance art, conceptual art, and feminist art in Southern California.
Antin was born in New York City and studied acting in a school for acting and creative writing at the College of the City of New York. She worked as a professional actress from 1955-1958 and married poet David Antin in 1961. In 1968, she moved to Southern California with her husband and son. Antin credits her move to California as a significant influence on her art.
She created a series of works, “California Lives,” that presented biographies of fictional characters that came about from her notion of California pop culture. Her inventing fictitious personae, or alternate “selves,” also grew out of the narrative conceptual art, which she had begun in New York City, and her interest in women’s narratives. “I invent myself so freely. And I’m inventing histories all the time.” “California Lives” revealed the lives of these imagined people in works that combined narrative texts, consumer goods, and household objects.
Her most well known conceptual piece is the series, “100 Boots,” 1971-1973. This work documents the exploits of one hundred old black rubber boots, stand-ins for human adventures, in dramatic situations. They are photographed visiting the desert, a drive-in movie theater, in a duck pond, in a field of oil pumps, on the way to an amusement park, and standing on the Staten Island ferry. She created an installation of them at New York’s Museum of Modern Art along with her photographs of them. She not only recorded these viewings of boots but also turned them into mail art. She made mailwork of these boots by mailing handmade postcards to a thousand people around the world.
Since 1972, Antin – as a performance artist – created three highly developed alter egos: an idealized Elizabethan-like king; a black ballerina Eleanora Aninova; and a nurse called Eleanor Nightingale. These invented or created personae were filmed in video with Antin playing herself as each of them.
In 1972, she challenged definitions of sculpture, self-portraiture, photographic documentation, and performance art with “Carving: A Traditional Sculpture.” Presented as a grid of 148 black & white photographs, the work shows the transformation of Antin’s own body as she lost ten pounds over thirty-seven days of strict dieting. Each vertical column of four photographs of the naked Antin – showing her from the front, the back, and on each side – represents a day of her performance.
In 2017, she restaged this piece in “Carving: 45 Years Later. She was too vain to start photographing herself at 141 pounds, so she quickly lost eleven pounds and started photographing herself at 130 pounds. Because of such a rapid weight loss, it took her three months to lose the remaining nine pounds. She produced five hundred photographs over the course of one hundred days, with a fifth row added to the sequence. Antin considers this new piece to be “even more political than the earlier one. . . ‘Carving: 45 Years Later’ depicts my belief that the older body is to be respected and admired. After all, I made it.” Both sequences were shown at LACMA in the spring of 2019.
An educator, Antin has taught at U.C. Irvine and from 1979 was a Professor of Visual Arts at U.C. San Diego. She has received various awards and grants, which include a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture Media Achievement.
She has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Her work is in the permanent collections of museums, such as New York’s MoMA, San Francisco MoMA, Walker Art Center, Art Institute of Chicago, The Jewish Museum, and the Whitney Museum.