Working since the early 1960s, Eleanor Antin has created a body of work that explores history, contemporary culture, and identity from a feminist perspective. Before devoting herself to the visual arts, Antin was a poet and an actress. Drawing on this background, she has integrated language, character, costume, and voice into the mediums of painting, sculpture, and photography. Her disregard for the boundaries between art, performance, and theater opened possibilities for younger generations of artists working between the studio and the stage.
Initially developing her practice amid New York’s artistic and literary avant-garde, in 1969 Antin moved to San Diego, where she became deeply involved with the local feminist movement and participated in activities at the Woman’s Building, an arts and education center in Los Angeles. She was also a key figure within the vibrant community of leftist artists and writers affiliated with the University of California, San Diego, where she taught from 1975 until 2002.
In 1974 Antin wrote, “I consider the usual aids to self-definition—sex, age, talent, time and space—as tyrannical limitations upon my freedom of choice.” From the early 1970s through the early 1990s she challenged these limitations by creating and embodying multiple alter egos of different genders, races, professions, historical eras, and geographic locations. She presented this motley group, whom she called her “selves,” in works across mediums. The primary selves—a disenfranchised king, two frustrated ballerinas, and a helpless nurse—are the protagonists in a series of narrative videos, including The King (1972), The Ballerina and the Bum (1974), The Adventures of a Nurse (1976), and From the Archives of Modern Art(1987). In transforming herself into one character after another, she performed the proposition that gender, class, and racial identity are fluid. If such categories are unstable, the works suggest, then so too must be the social hierarchies that are built upon them. This position, shared by many feminist artists of Antin’s generation, was foundational for politically engaged art of the 1980s and 1990s and continues to reverberate in art today.
Since the early 2000s Antin has been making large-scale photographic tableaux that mine classical history and art history to reflect on current issues such as environmental destruction and modern warfare. These bodies of work, like the ones that precede them, are often marked by wit and humor, even as they engage serious, even dark, matters.