The Ovarian Fist

January 14, 2010, 6:58 am
Filed under: Art | Tags: , , ,

Antin’s Odyssey

Photographer Eleanor Antin may be considered a rather distinguished female artist, but that doesn’t mean you’ve heard of her. Like with many female artists through the decades, Antin is one of the names incanted among scholars of the arts and those that go on an all out “women in art” witch hunt. You can find her, but the trouble is that you have to know who and what you’re looking for beforehand. See the problem here?

There should be no “secret club” of information, no “magic words” (perhaps chanting “Judy Chicago” three times fast?) that one needs to know in order to access the talents of these spectacular females. All of this information should be readily available and supported by cultural society. This is not to say that male artists gain a lavish amount of praise in our society; it’s true that artists as a collective group are under appreciated and seldom discussed in the general public. Having said that, I can bet you that for every male artist that does happen to become a household name (Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Ansel Adams) there is a handful of women you will never learn of (Alice Neel, Carolee Schneeman, Ana Mendieta, Eleanor Antin) that you most certainly should learn of. The only solution to this problem is, of course, to discuss these women more often and integrate them into popular art culture, and that is precisely what this blog is meant to do. Being a student of the arts, I am just one of those folks that were lucky enough to be granted a covert pass into the female artist “motherload” (was that a pun? I can’t tell). Eleanor Antin is one of the many talented women that I had the great opportunity to learn of, and she is most certainly a woman that is worth discussing.

Eleanor Antin might be best known for her recent satirical mock-history work (Helen’s Odyssey, The Last Days of Pompeii) but it is her conceptual work of the early 70’s that leaves the greatest impression on me. Though I do admire her famous conceptual piece Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, it is one of those works that is so often discussed as a staple of modern feminist art that I won’t be saying much about it. It is, of course, worth the praise, but it doesn’t need the publicity. What I will be focusing on is the lesser known (yet equally groundbreaking) photo series, 100 Boots.

In 1970 Eleanor Antin thirsted to create a hero. She longed to construct her own modern day Odysseus and send him on a grand epic adventure (not through the vast treacheries of ancient Greece, but at least over the abundant California countryside). It was in her sleep that this desired protagonist materialized for the first time—Antin dreamt of 100 boots facing the sea. The very next day she got to work making her vision a reality; she traveled to her local Army Navy surplus store and purchased 100 black, empty boots, all of them blank slates ready to be filled with purpose and character.

The result? 100 identical black boots that find themselves on a wily adventure; breaking laws, scaling the organic countryside, engaging in warfare and ending up in the smoke-and-steel plains of New York City. Eleanor Antin describes the evolution of this epic visual narrative in a small introduction at the beginning of the 100 Boots book collection:

…We took 100 Boots down to the beach to look at the sea. We took him to the market, the bank, and the church. He seemed to be a good suburbanite. But sometimes he looked restless rounding a corner to nowhere. He began to champ at the bit, and, ignoring a “No Trespassing” sign, he climbed over the chain-link-fence protecting a power transformer. He had committed his first crime and had to hit the road. He caught a ride in an old Ford Falcon. Later he reappeared in a meadow, hanging out with the cows…and 100 Boots was on his way to his next adventure.

Perhaps the most inventive aspect of this piece is Antin’s method of getting her work out to the public; she sent each photograph of 100 Boots’ legacy to a random list of spectators as postcards through the mail. For three years various households across America received a visual update of 100 Boots’ progress, while an increasing number of people asked to be added to the mailing list. For many people the regular postcards began to become like the expected letters from a loved one, a welcome update and “wish you were here” from an old friend. “…the time of the mailings intersected with people’s lives,” Antin elaborates. “It spilled out of their mailboxes along with bills, letters, newspapers, Christmas cards, divorce papers. They could tape it to the fridge, tuck it away in a drawer, throw it in the trash”. Because of this imaginative method, Antin managed to create a work of art that she could integrate into the lives of others, one that could grow and evolve over time just as the individual viewers did.

The following are just a few of my favorites from the collection of 51 photos:

“100 Boots on the way to Church
(mailed April 5, 1971)

“100 Boots on the Road
(mailed September 7, 1971)

“100 Boots Out of a Job”
(mailed September 18, 1972)

“100 Boots on the March”
(mailed February 20, 1973)

“100 Boots Go East”
(mailed May 11, 1973)

“100 Boots Cross Herald Square”
(mailed June 6, 1973)

Unfortunately, this collection is not very easy to come by. Resources on the internet are sparse and often of low quality, and the book form of the collection has been discontinued. Unless one happens to live near MoMA (New York’s Museum of Modern Art) or was fortunate enough to be on the original mailing list, one can really only attempt to find a used copy of the book (23 copies are currently available on Amazon with prices ranging from $12.85 to a surprising $96.39).


Section on Women Who Rock will be posted later in the week.