Conversational Critic, Talking Poet David Antin

David Antin discussing his new book of essays, Radical Coherency, at D.G. Wills Bookstore in La Jolla on May 13
  • David Antin discussing his new book of essays, Radical Coherency, at D.G. Wills Bookstore in La Jolla on May 13

David Antin, a native New Yorker, was already a well-known figure in the avant-garde poetry and art circles of Manhattan when he flew west in 1968 to take a look around for a potential appointment at the University of California San Diego. Painter Paul Brach, the chair of the school’s then-new Department of Visual Arts, was trying to recruit people with considerable reputations in the art world. Antin made the trip on his own, without his wife Eleanor, who was to become an important performance, conceptual, and feminist artist in the 1970s. But he remembers his call to her.

“I told Elly about seeing these jelly-bean-shaped things as my plane descended into Los Angeles and not realizing what they were,” Antin recalls during an interview in the study of his Carmel Valley home. “And, of course, they were swimming pools. I started to get off the plane, and there was a small earthquake. I told her, ‘You can’t believe California. It’s either the beginning of the end here, or the end of the beginning.’ I like to think it was a beginning.”

He accepted the position, dividing his time between running the university art gallery and teaching art criticism and theory for the first four years of his 25-year tenure at UCSD. (After that, he taught full time until he retired in 1993.) Eleanor joined the faculty in 1975, after a few years of teaching at UC Irvine.

Antin soon discovered there was a semi-covert art world in San Diego that interested him greatly: “It was the character of the place that interested me. I wasn’t much interested in the affluent world of La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe. But there was a bohemian art community here, with artists like Richard Allen Morris and John Baldessari. The setting was provincial, but the art wasn’t.

“The California situation was a fortunate one,” he adds, “particularly in Southern California. It was a mixture of everything that was interesting and alive about America, and everything that was lethal. They were both here together.

“I think I couldn’t have done the work I did in New York. There is something wonderfully wacky about the West Coast that I love. It was more radical; its art was more radical. In New York, art was more ‘responsible.’ The problem with the New York art world was that you felt like someone was looking over your shoulder all the time, if not sitting in your lap. Everybody is spread out in Southern California. It may be a difficulty, but it is also a virtue. It allows you to do things that aren’t validated because you don’t know what the validation is.”

California has indeed been good to Antin. Here, he has become one of the true originals among American poets, creating a genre of his own — the talk poem. It first takes life as a kind of improvisatory performance. He invents the piece as he goes, with only a broad topic or theme in his head, only later turning a talk into a text — if, that is, he, or someone else, has been prescient enough to have recorded it. (Inevitably, there are some lost to the universe of inspired improvisation.)

This desire to create art with an emphasis on the present is also the reason why he long resisted collecting his essays on art and literature in book form, even though longtime friends, equally prominent poets such as Charles Bernstein and Jerome Rothenberg, kept at him about the idea for a long time.

“I signed the contract for a book of essays something like 20 years,” Antin recalls. “The problem was, I was incapable of looking backward, I was so committed to going forward. Frankly, the idea of it depressed me a little. Even selective essays would be like a tombstone.”

But now that he has succumbed, Antin has come to believe that a collection of his critical writings won’t freeze him in time — even at 79. In fact, he seems pretty happy about the publication of Radical Coherency: Selected Essays on Art and Literature, 1965 to 2005. It’s dedicated to Charles Bernstein, whom Antin describes as “that keen and generous/ poet critic thinker/ without whose friendly insistence/ I might still be dawdling over this book.”

There is a bit of self-deprecation in this dedication, since Antin doesn’t strike you as a dawdler. He’s published 15 books before Radical Coherency, most of them of his poetry, some while maintaining a full course load at UCSD for two-plus decades, on such topics as the history of criticism and theories of modernism and post-modernism. He was part of a crucial first generation of professors in UCSD’s visual arts department that gave it a national profile. His colleagues included a bevy of significant artists: Newton and Helen Meyer Harrison, Patricia Patterson, Manny Farber, Allan Kaprow, Louis Hock, and Kim MacConnel. They also included noted art historians like Sheldon Nodelman, who still teaches there. The experimental spirit of the department suited Antin’s temperament and writing well.

He had already established his considerable reputation as an art critic in New York during the years when minimalism, pop art, and performance art were emerging. Accidental as his timing may have been when he decided to become an art writer, it was also superb. John Ashbery, highly respected as an art critic and already well on his way to becoming a major poet, wanted him to write for Art News and put Antin together with the magazine’s editor Thomas Hess. But Antin wasn’t about to make things easy on himself.

“I offered to write about Warhol, who I knew that Thomas Hess hated,” he recalls. “I thought he would dismiss my idea, but instead he said, ‘When can you have it ready?’”

This essay, which appeared in 1966, during Warhol’s peak years as an artist, did much to establish Antin’s reputation as a critic.

“I think I wrote the first serious piece on Warhol in an art magazine,” he says. “I knew him during these years, and he was a pungent, death-obsessed artist who was impressed by the violence and nastiness of the American scene and the aspirations to beauty and transcendence that were always being undercut by the photography machine.”

This essay, titled “Warhol: The Silver Tenement,” is included in Radical Coherence. Antin pinpoints one of Warhol’s essential qualities with this sentence: “Warhol’s success depends upon his failure, on being a magnificently cracked ‘mirruh’ with the silver chipping off.”

He gives us equally keen insights about the late Allan Kaprow — one of the inventors of the nonnarrative, staged events called “happenings” — whom Antin knew well as a colleague at UCSD.

“It is probably better to think of the work done in Allan’s pieces as liberated work, rather than meaningless work,” he writes. “It was work undertaken by volunteers for no purpose other than to be experienced and reflect upon — whether it was lining a roadside with tarpaper and cinderblocks or refurbishing a deserted landing strip or breaking rocks in a quarry, covering them with aluminum foil…”

It was a heady period to be writing art criticism, as Antin acknowledges. Pop art was challenging the prevailing notion that only abstraction mattered. The dominant idea put forth by the critic Clement Greenberg, that art was somehow moving along a path to formalist purity, was under attack from critics like Antin. He refers to Greenberg’s scenario as a “manufactured history of painting.”

Antin was hardly alone in his skepticism about Greenberg, who held considerable sway at the time: “The art world was very much alive with conversations and ideas and quarrels. It was an exciting time and art seemed to matter. It wasn’t about money. And criticism was part of that.”

Antin’s “talk poems,” or “talk pieces,” were from the start a hybrid form, as adaptable to his ambitions as critic as to his aspirations as a poet. Like many a discovery in any field, this one involved some serendipity. He had been asked to give a talk at Cooper Union art school in New York, and his index cards were jumbled, so he just started talking instead and liked the results. A few months later, in 1972, he was asked to speak about art at Pomona College in Claremont and the talk poem or talk piece was born; it was aptly titled “talking in pomona.”

He quickly found that the form of these talk pieces defies and blurs genres. It lends itself just as well to criticism as poetic thought, to philosophical ruminations as well as to storytelling. His influences in them are as much Plato and his dialogues as the work of any poet. Other touchstones are Gertrude Stein and Ludwig Wittgenstein (Antin studied the structure of Stein’s writing as a graduate student in linguistics at New York University, where he earned an MA in the field). Antin offers up a succinct explanation of what he has been up to in the introduction to his new book: “I had been looking for a poetry of thinking and what I found was a poetry of talking, because talking was as close as I could come to thinking.”

Marjorie Perloff, long one of the most influential critics writing about contemporary poetry, has been a champion of Antin’s work for decades. Commenting on his new book in an email exchange, she observes: “David Antin’s early essays were uniquely prescient, and many of them have become classics. Meanwhile, the ‘talk pieces’ included here, most of them dating from the ’80s and early ’90s, uncannily anticipate the hybrid texts of conceptual writing today, taking up, as they do, complex philosophical issues that can be addressed but never resolved. The art essays and talk pieces also have in common an incredible sense of humor: David is often a stand-up comic, and his ironies are delicious.”

One of the talk pieces included in Radical Coherency, “the existential allegory of the rothko chapel,” revolves around a visit to that iconic chapel in Houston, a space designed by the enduring painter. Antin’s view on Rothko’s canvases, deservedly celebrated for their deeply saturated and often atmospheric color, reveals the essence of his approach to art. “I found the rhetorical cloud around Rothko inadequate and tiresome,” he writes. “His paintings seemed to fit too poorly in the expressive rhetoric of abstract expressionism.”

So, as always, he asks himself to really look at what is in front of him. In the span of 12 pages, which probably would have been an hour in talk time, he describes the experience of Rothko’s painted panels in that chapel (often mistakenly described as black when they are actually composed of dark red and dark blue). Antin also shifts, in his characteristic way, to a wide range of subjects, from considering poor uses of language to clichéd images, like a nuclear mushroom cloud. By bringing in examples of lazy thinking, he gets around to talking about the opposite: how close attention to anything can expand our sense of what those paintings did for him and what affect they might have on us.

His ideas may be challenging, but the presentation of them is pleasurable, often comic. Some passages in these essays and talk pieces are flat-out funny. This is the case with “radical coherency” — the inspiration for the collection’s title — which is about finding order in the random situations of everyday life. He proceeds to tell a story about taking his mom shopping for clothes, a process she ultimately resists because of the sheer abundance of things in women’s clothing departments. But this abundance leads him to thinking about the art of collage “with its fragments of otherwise unrelated or arbitrarily related things that are now part of some new and totally unfamiliar yet partially familiar thing.” And his point: that this radical coherency or sense of order you notice in a modernist collage is just as evident in Sears, if you know how to look for it.

Looking without preconceptions of what one is looking for, thinking without any kind of pre-established argument or storyline — these notions are constants in Antin’s essays and talk pieces. He is a complexly philosophical writer who is utterly accessible: a master of the conversational style, an experimentalist who embraces everyday language. His critical writings are as pleasurable as they are thought provoking. His friends were right to nag him: this was a book that deserved to get done. ■

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Great article & so nice to see Robert Pincus writing again!

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