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. ■