Sunday, June 26, 2011

Fractures of Self (on David Antin's Radical Coherency)


David Antin Radical Coherency: Selected Essays on Art and Literature, 1966 to 2005 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011)

One of the first things anyone approaching David Antin's marvelous new collection of essays on art and literature will notice is the striking image on the book's cover, a photograph that depicts David Antin, looking perhaps a bit more Buddha-like than he does in real-life, walking toward another image of himself, this from the back side of the face. There is something arresting about this image, even a bit eerie, but I made little of it when I first saw it, except to register that it represented an image of the author, symbolically speaking, of 1966 coming towards his current being. A few friends, however, found that image quite disturbing, one suggesting he had to keep the book face down on his coffee table. Perhaps it was just the oddity of having a photograph, which we associate with the real world, representing something that we know cannot truly happen, one aspect of self meeting up with the other.

Yet, if we read on in Antin's book, particularly in his essay "The Beggar and the King," we recognize that this transaction between two aspects of the self is precisely what the author projects as being behind the narrative genre he has created in the "talk poem." Speaking of his early work, generated by a kind of collage sensibility, Antin observes:

...I started out in the 1950s like many young experimental artists
with a strong commitment to most of the received ideas of early-
twentieth-century modernism, the most important of which for a
artist was the idea of the exhaustion, experimental and aesthetic, of
the representation in all its forms. For a language artist this mostly
meant the uselessness of narrative.

Antin goes on to suggest that over the years, as he recognized the exhaustion "of nearly all the modes of experimental communication," that he began to reexamine narrative, exploring worlds of folklorists and ethnographers (the Grimm brothers, Afansiev, etc.) as well as V. Propp's structural study The Morphology of the Folktale, and others as far-reaching as Zuni Tales and Bernardino de Sahagun's definitions compiled from survivors of the Aztec culture. What Antin finally determined is that some narratives are not stories, and some stories have no narrative, coming eventually to articulate a definition of narrative:

a narrative requires a sense of something at stake for somebody in
some particular subject position, which is what characterizes the stake.
It is this sense of stake that should be taken as the center of narrative.

Like dreams, Antin argues, narratives build bridges across change.

The act of reconnecting subject positions across the gulf of
change is what constitutes the formation of self. All self is built
over the threat of change. There can be no self until there is an
awareness of one's subject position, which can only be created
by the threat of change or the memory of change. Every change
creates a fracture between successive subject states, that narrative
attempts and fails to heal. The self is formed over these cracks.
Every self is multiply fractured, and narrative traversal of these
fracture planes defines the self. Narrative is the traditional and
indispensable instrument of self creation.

It is this definition of narrative and Antin's own exploration of that genre in his "talk poems" that came eventually to define his art. One must understand the picture on the cover, accordingly, not just as an encounter of an older Antin with a newer one, but one kind of self facing the spectre of another and redefining that vision of self in the process. And in that sense, the image on the cover is a slightly disturbing vision of these two selves coming together almost to duke it out over the changes that have obviously occurred in the writer's own life, one might say, another kind of "radical coherency."

Yet I was struck in these revelatory essays, at how much continuity Antin demonstrates in a writing that bridges 39 years. There are only four works that actually fit the format of what the author describes as "talk poems" here ("the existential allegory of the rothko chapel," the title piece, "radical coherency," "the death of the hired man," and "john cage uncaged is still cagey," although Antin tells me that "Fine Furs" was originally written in the form, but later transformed into an essay), but I would argue that all of the pieces in this volume have the same Antin inflections of voice and structural patterns as his later works. Antin's is a voice filled with pauses, not always at the place one might suspect, but as in Stein, always there as part of the syntax itself. These caesuras are a product of Antin's whole process, which is so different from most critical writing that it is sometimes difficult to think of Antin setting out to write an "essay." For Antin does not "answer" anything, but poses of each artist, poet or groups of these, questions which he then ponders and pauses over in sentence after sentence, wandering and wondering aloud in astoundingly profound ways, how and why certain things are being said or done. Occasionally, for Antin is a true wit, these can be somewhat whimsical—in "Warhol: The Silver Tenement," for example, Antin's major summary is that in order for Warhol's beautiful creations to succeed, they must necessarily develop "scuffs," transforming his paintings, films, novels, soap operas, and even his planned "silver tenement" into a kind of "precisely pinpointed defectiveness," a kind of tawdry version of glamour—but by and large, no matter what his own position about the quality or purposefulness of the various art and poetic endeavors upon which he focuses, Antin asks serious questions, challenges set notions, and makes us rethink our assumptions.

In order to cover a large range of territory, Antin has clearly winnowed down what was to have been a far bigger book with numerous other essays (sometimes on the same artist at different periods in his or her career) into a whole that explores various aspects of the art scene from the mid-1960s through today. From Pop art, Antin moves on to the new representational work of artists like Alex Katz, taking out time in a wonderfully, slightly daffy piece to consider the work of machine-builders such as Jean Tinguely, before turning his attention to a "Pollution Show" in Oakland, California, consisting of photographs, drawings, kinetic junk sculpture, funk, discreet piles of rubbish, and even a dead seagull.

From these "earthwork" pieces, the author turns his attention to different kinds and traditions of constructivism and the issues of flatness in contemporary art, moving through Sol Lewitt, Robert Irwin, Michael Asher, Carl Andre and others. This is followed by a bruising criticism of the famed "Art and Technology," show, organized by Maurice Tuchman at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1971. Later essays include discussions of video art, an hilarious consideration—using the example of artist Robert Morris—of how one might comprehend the "proprietary rights" of an artist, followed by a sensitive evaluation of the color fields of Rothko's art in Houston's Rothko Chapel, often viewed under the light of clouded skies, and ending with a reevaluation of performance artist Allan Kaprow. In short, Antin's writing serves almost as a textbook, without textbook-like presentations and conclusions, of what art meant throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

I should add that not only can I hear Antin's voice in all these pieces but I perceive his various viewpoints as splendidly personal appreciations or disparagements. Reading Antin on art is as if one were accompanying a lively friend or uncle on trips to the museums and galleries throughout the country over a period of several years, the only way one can truly come to know and appreciate art.

Miraculously Antin does the same thing for literature, beginning with a substantial essay exploring issues of modernism and postmodernism in American poetry long before, 1972, anyone else had thoroughly considered these issues in depth. I remember sitting in Marjorie Perloff's class—Marjorie being one of Antin's first major critical supporters—four years later, where we still hadn't accepted the idea of there being a "postmodern" poetry. Antin was there first! His "Some Questions about Modernism" bravely explores, again long before it had been done by others, notions of different kinds of modernism, opening up all kinds of literary texts that move away from the Pound-Williams-Eliot-Stevens kind of poetic genealogy.

"Radical Coherency" humorously discusses the concept through a visit to a large shopping mall store where he attempts to help his elderly mother pick out some undergarments, priced at the amount she has been used to paying for years. That metaphor, of bargain shops within large clothing sections, striated by aisles and aisles of other ready-to-purchase goods, probably does more to explain what we might mean by a coherent thing that has radically exploded to contain all sorts of strange categories and subdivisions to meet the needs of contemporary culture.

Essays like "The Stranger at the Door," the already-discussed "The Beggar and the King," and "Fine Furs," open up the whole notion of what a poem is or might be understood to be. In one of the funniest works of the entire book, "the death of the hired hand," Antin deconstructs some of the poetry of Robert Frost (and incidentally, of my artist acquaintance, Siah Armajani's poetry room, in which Antin speaks). Antin's discussion of the kind of dishonesty—a "wearing of hats" as he terms it—of Frost's diction and poetic positioning will forever change, I can assure you, the way you see this plain carpenter of imitative New England poetic dialogues.

The penultimate essay is a brilliant reconsideration of Wittgenstein's work in the context of some critics' contention that his philosophical studies are also works of poetry. Antin dares to ask and attempts to explain just what that poetry might consist of, and how, sometimes rather strangely, it functions as such. In the last essay, "john cage uncaged is still cagey," Antin takes on work that has perhaps been very influential to his own writing, suggesting how the performances of this "cagey" composer, collector of mushrooms, and sometimes unofficial manager of Merce Cunningham's dance company, function as poetic events.

There are a few minor quibbles with Antin's book, namely concerning the lack of information the author provides about some of the artists and events on which writes. It would be useful to know the names and places of the shows he reviewed, in one case in particular, Antin, a close friend of the artist, does not ever mention Allan (Kaprow's) last name! It occurs only in a footnote. But these are small matters that might have been ameliorated by more editorial involvement.

The book as a whole is a stunning summary (although there are dozens of other works by Antin remaining to be republished) of one of our most engaging and challenging intellects. Radical Coherency is filled with the goods you can enjoy again and again.

Los Angeles, May 17, 2011

Monday, June 13, 2011



With its often overcast sky, its tall houses reflecting into the canals, and with streets dedicated more to bicycles than either cars or pedestrians, Amsterdam is a nearly impossible city to experience. There seems to be no way to see it.

When I checked into my hotel, the Eden—comfortably located in the midst of nearly everything—my room was not ready, so tired as I was from the travel, I determined to take a look at the renowned red light district nearby. But hardly had I got out of the hotel door, when a bicycle crashed into me, throwing both me and the rider onto the concrete. "Watch where you're going," he shouted out in English.

"Are you okay?" I asked, checking my own pained limbs simultaneously. He stood, shook himself off and sped away.

I had not noticed that what I thought was a walkway for human beings was the lane for masses of speeding bikes. At some points in the narrow streets, it was safer to duel with the car than with the revered two-wheeler.

The red light district, so I discovered, no longer exists—except for heterosexual men desperate for a quickie. I should have realized that there is no longer any need of printed pornography since the computer stores images and even whole movies so conveniently. The entire area is on the remake, slowly gussying itself up as a tourist destination, with only some isolated back lanes of glass covered booths wherein dreadful looking prostitutes await, pounding the glass as any man passes. Busloads of tourists were told that "here you can get whatever you seek," but I no longer believed them. There were only a few gay stores left, and some of them were now sleek boutiques filled with Sadomasochistic costumes and machines for which I could not even imagine a use.

I visited a couple of lovely bookstores, and returned to my hotel, which was certainly not elegant, but comfortable enough, even if I had to sit at the lobby-located bar to use my laptop. But then, I like to write and drink.

For dinner, I asked the concierge to suggest an old-fashioned Dutch restaurant that might serve fish, since I was in the mood for it, and could only imagine that with all the water hereabouts fish should be as bountiful as in Scandinavia. He suggested Sluizer on Utrectsestratt, perfect for my taste!

I saw wonderful platters of fish being served, but inexplicably ordered Weinerschnitzel with pommes frites. What I hadn't expected, but quickly perceived, was that nearly any food in both the Netherlands and Belgium would be accompanied by mayonnaise and other sauces. I chose not to participate in the national passion for cholesterol.

The next day, I would be leaving by an afternoon train to Paris, so, after an early continental breakfast, I hiked about the neighborhood in search of another room, since I'd been told that when I planned to return to Amsterdam for a few days after my travels in France and Belgium, the hotel was booked up. Several other hotels looked suitable enough and were accommodatingly priced, but they also had no rooms available. Finally, I spotted a small hotel facing the same canal opposite the Eden. The man behind the counter, who seemed also to own the small establishment, appeared to be gay, and rooms were available, so I booked.

Returning more than a week later, I was asked by the same gentleman if instead of a room I might like to stay in a nearby apartment the hotel owned or even on the houseboat docked in the canal in front. I was tempted by the latter just for the oddity of it, but the weather look chancey, and a bobbing, rain-splattered night appeared in store, so I chose the apartment. It was not elegantly decorated, but certainly had a sense of student-like flair, with furniture, it appeared, like the kind you find at Ikea. A rather large living room faced the kitchen and dining room, with a commodious bedroom with a large double and single beds behind sliding doors. It was perfect, I realized, since I was too tired to walk endlessly about the city in search of something to do. Most of the museums, I was told, were being restored, and had closed down large numbers of their galleries. Amsterdam still seemed bleak and difficult to get an image of.

I walked the flower market, I marched through Rembrandt Square, I wandered the opera house nearby, dropped into pubs, and met for lunch with Tom Möhlmann from the Dutch Translation offices, along with the vivacious Diane Butterman, who was translating the complete poems of Lucebert for us. At that pleasant lunch, on the top of a department store, I could, for the first time, actually glimpse a vista of the city. Perhaps I should have visited several churches, seeking out their bell towers. But I was happy at the large, circular table the hotel had provided for the apartment, upon which I had placed my laptop.

I wrote several pieces and, in pausing, stared down from the flower-leaden balcony at the mobs of soccer fans below, totally pleased with myself.

Bicycles spun down the streets with an abandon I no longer had to dodge.

One evening I ate what amounted to a feast at a nearby Indonesian restaurant, a delicious meal. I returned to Sluizer, this time to eat the previously-proffered fish, and the next night dined upon an overly rich meal of French oysters followed by veal medallions smothered in a sauce of mushrooms and sweetbreads with mashed potatoes patterned into small, dumpling-like mounds at Flo Brasserie. An economics professor and his psychologist wife conversed with me from the next booth over. Hearing I was a poet, he informed me that one of his colleagues uses Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" as the perfect metaphor for economic theory. I laughed, thinking to myself, "Oh, those clever Dutch. They've found the perfect role for Frost!

The next morning a taxi appeared, the driver helping me carry the big suitcase I'd come to call my "maiden aunt" down the stairs, maneuvering it into the trunk, then whisked me away to Schipol Airport, where I was charged $100 for the burdensome aunt.

Amsterdam, June 8, 2010