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.”