October 14, 2016
David Antin is dead long live David Antin
by Ian Dreiblatt
Poet, critic, performance artist, and genius of the present tense David Antin has died of Parkinson’s disease.
Over more than fifty years, Antin produced a body of restless work that addressed and destabilized notions of poetry, literacy, and the contemporary. He wrote art criticism for a number of publications—notably Artforum—and taught for many years at the University of California, San Diego. While he worked as a writer in several forms, he was best-known for his “talk-poems,” improvised spoken performances that wended through autobiography, philosophy, and art theory, which he would record and later transcribe as poems for his books. In 1984’s Tuning, Antin speaks of
trying to put together a book which i do not by transcribing literally my pieces because i feel theres nothing sacred about them theyre my pieces so that when i put them in a book they dont come out exactly as i spoke them sometimes even a lot more like speaking them than when i speak them but thats the result of my having to deal with them again when i put them down its also a result of my love for the present you see it would be a great mistake to believe that my love for the present only occurs when im talking because once ive established my love for the present through my talking i dont give it up when im writing when im sitting in front of the typewriter i feel like im sitting in front of a typewriter and ill be damned if im going to feel a profound sense of obligation to another moment that now no longer exists at this moment
Born in New York City in 1932 and educated at the City College of New York, Antin exemplified a generation of intellectuals the city produced, bringing an earthy public-mindedness to bear in subtly considering postmodern art. In his essay “It Reaches a Desert in which Nothing Can Be Perceived but Feeling”, he writes:
There is a Chekhov story in which a lady traveling in one of those coaches through the outer reaches of eastern Russia stops at an inn, where she encounters a gentleman slumped disconsolately over the only table. When he tells his story, as the disconsolate gentlemen always do in these narratives, it turns out that he had been a student of chemistry, had learned all there was to know of chemical matters, every property of every element and all of their combinations, and he had been happy in his knowledge; then they discovered a new element. Nobody has to recognize hydrogen as an element whose life doesn’t lead to californium. In phenomenology we might take a lesson from the habits of the German language, where oxygen is “acid stuff,” hydrogen is “burn stuff,” and succinic acid is “amber acid.” The only elements we need to recognize are the elements we work with, the ones that are part of our life; and there is no buying a part of the periodic table without buying the whole scientific apparatus.
Because each of Antin’s talks was improvised in a different physical location, there was a site-specific quality to much of his work. (Its kinship with the projects of physical artists like Gordon Matta-Clark and Robert Smithson has been observed by the poet Caroline Bergvall, among others.) This in turn was amplified by an urbane associativeness, a kind of cognitive polyrhythm through which he could engage the experiential multiplicity of a particular place. In his chapbook Autobiography, he says:
I kept thinking I was in Idaho even though I knew I was walking down 6th Ave. talking to a friend. We were passing the 20’s and the smell of fir trees piled on the sidewalk for Christmas
In reading Antin on the page, one often feels this play of places and purposes, a kind of workerly insistence that all meaning is a product of the tools on hand, arising modestly from the human and natural particulars of the situation that engenders it. Antin presents this as one of the oldest and most familiar facts of art. In 1972’s Talking, he writes:
…there were these careers of making sculpture lets say as it were sculpture to adorn the wall of a temple that everybody took for granted that is to say you narrated a story in sculpture on a frieze say you narrated something or you encoded a god in an appropriate place well thats pretty functional and people would know why you did it but no one would agree that that was the art function and everybody is aware that theres an art function and it started from some area back there and that we’re here making art in an arena that was not necessarily set up to be the art arena well thats because we’re not sure what we mean when we say the art arena we mean something ineffably pure apparently now what is this art arena what do we do in this art arena and this is very curious i mean to me it seems curious because as a poet and artist ive always felt secure that what i was doing was valuable to be doing that if someone should be doing it i should be doing it that it needed doing
In a Facebook post, poet Charles Bernstein called Antin “a great inspiration, radical model, dearest friend, and ever an iconoclast.” A moving tribute at Harriet, the blog of the Poetry Foundation, offers a more complete list of Antin’s publications and awards, and notes, “His work, talk, mind, performances, and teaching have influenced everyone from colleagues and friends in what has been called the ‘Oral Poetics Movement’ like Jerome Rothenberg, to fellow improvisatory poet Steve Benson, to, more recently, Anna Moschovakis.” Few indeed are the obituaries that can credit the influence of an artist’s “work, talk, mind, performance, and teaching” — but in Antin’s case it almost risks understatement.
Speaking last year to Jake Marmer in an interview for Tablet, Antin remarked:
What do I mean? It’s not I who does the meaning. It’s as if the meaning comes of the culture speaks through me I feel myself in awareness of cultural reverberations of every word And I’m doubtful of what I’m saying My doubt is what makes it improvisational.
Antin was eighty-four, and is survived by his longtime collaborator and wife of fifty-three years Eleanor Antin. You can hear and watch recordings of him here and here.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.