Like some hazy art-house flick about late-'60s America, Eleanor Antin's cross-country drive from New York to San Diego coincided with a historic moment of escalating civic unrest. The artist and her husband David, who'd been appointed gallery director at then-fledgling UCSD, left the East Coast in early June of 1968. On June 3, they learned that art-world acquaintance Andy Warhol had been shot and nearly killed. Three days later, waking early to avoid the baking afternoon heat of the California desert, the Antins received even grimmer news in their motel lobby.
“There was a guy on the phone, and he kept saying, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, you're kidding,” Antin recalls. “David said, ‘Kennedy's been shot.' He just knew.”
Bobby Kennedy's assassination in California rattled the nation. It was just two months after Martin Luther King had been gunned down. A half-million American troops were slogging through the deadly jungles of Vietnam with seemingly no end to the war in sight. And the Antins—vocal anti-war activists, New York lifers and parents to a year-old son—were abandoning the comfort of elite intellectual circles for a sleepy military town out West.
“We crossed the desert in paranoia,” she says.
That was a long time ago, but Antin's work is all about history—ancient, recent, about-to-be. And Antin's new life in San Diego would eventually influence the works appearing in the San Diego Museum of Art's Historical Takes, a new solo exhibition showcasing three significant series: The Last Days of Pompeii, Roman Allegories and Helen's Odyssey.
In her elaborately staged, large-scale photographs, Antin uses the ancients to create worlds on the precipice of disaster and decay—empires about to crumble, hedonists unaware of their impending fiery fate. Vibrant tableaus of posed, costumed actors open a dialogue about cultural superiority complexes and the bitch-slap of being a woman in a man's world. Get rid of the ionic columns and the togas and it looks a lot like 2008.
Antin, a popular former professor (now emeritus) at UCSD, works in a long, boxy studio filled with light and perched above a small canyon ravine. Her husband David, also a faculty alum, sits a room away in the couple's attached, modern-styled digs in Carmel Valley. Antin points out artful (and tall) landscaping hiding McMansions that have sprung up nearby. It's a tranquil place to think.
The 70-something artist speaks warmly, her non-native background divulged only by a lingering trace of an Allen-esque New York accent. Antin drops the f-bomb a lot for an old-timer and laughs easily. But one particular memory of her early days in San Diego darkens her demeanor.
“I was at the airport and all these guys were lined up, headed for boot camp,” she says. “They were kids with pimples, white and pasty-faced. It broke your heart to see them. I'd been so hostile to the war and the American military, but this made me feel like it was a tragedy on all sides. It's the same now. I remember the day the war ended….”
Here, her startlingly blue eyes well up and she chokes back a sob. “I'm sorry,” she says. “I'm horrified I'm doing this now. But that's how we're going to feel when they end the war in Iraq.”
Antin's photographs investigate imperialism and “the fantasy of mad politicians.” The ancients are good stand-ins for contemporary society, she points out.
“It's the idea of American Empire,” she explains. “We're supposed to set the world straight and yadda yadda. The ancient-world empires were similar, but I think they were smarter. They didn't want to change the places they conquered. They just wanted to collect taxes. [Like the Romans] we're on the way down. We didn't stay up there very long.”
In 2001's The Last Days of Pompeii, she imagines overindulged Roman fat cats and their posses living in blissful ignorance of nearby Mount Vesuvius' foreboding rumblings. In the wake of a major 1999 retrospective of her work at the L.A. County Museum of Art (how do you top that?), Antin says she had an Ah-ha! moment for the series while driving through the hills of La Jolla.
“I was wondering where to go, what to do now with my work,” she recalls. “And then it hit me. There was beautiful La Jolla, and there were all these people living on the verge of annihilation. I thought of Pompeii and I just saw similarities. We have global warming and we're sinking into the sea. We knew that even before Al Gore. And we have earthquakes and fires.”
Antin's work also explores woman's role in society, a subject she approaches cleverly in her 2007 series Helen's Odyssey. She offers up two Helens: one blonde and sweet and seductive, the other dark and angry and dangerous. “I needed a Helen that was rich enough to include a whole host of psychological layers,” she explains. “The young, pretty girl couldn't give that kind of life because they don't have that kind of experience. So I have two Helens.
“Throughout history, there's this view that people always have of women. There's the virgin and the whore. There's Mary and Mary Magdalene. There's Eve the mother of us all and Eve that seduces Adam into eating the apple and they get kicked out of Eden. It's always this dichotomy. Of course, we're not like that. We're infinitely more complex.”
Antin embodies that complexity more defiantly than most. She hails from a family of immigrant Jewish communists who had to reconcile red with red, white and blue when they settled stateside. Her mother ran flamboyant hotels filled with gypsy orchestras—she was fascinating but a financial failure. Her father was distant, though the two became close later in life. And Antin herself has juggled roles since girlhood: daughter, wife, mother, teacher and artist.
But she seems to have figured it out along the way, finding her place somewhere between those two Helens—between innocence and experience, optimism and cynicism. And though she isn't living in blissful ignorance like so many of her figures, she seems to have discovered a rich artistic vantage point as the world roils around her. Eleanor Antin' s Historical Takes opens Saturday, July 19, at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. www.sdmart.org.