David Antin, poet, art critic, performance artist and one of the founding professors of UC San Diego’s Department of Visual Arts, died October 2016 at age 84. In his honor, his son, Blaise, established the David Antin Endowed Prize for Excellence in Visual Arts at UCSD. Another great tribute took place at the Getty Center in Los Angeles on Feb. 4, when hundreds gathered for a memorial honoring Antin with what he was known and loved for — a torrent of words.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Antin made a home here in what is now Carmel Valley, but traveled widely, performing the improvised “talk poems” he later turned into written works. His New York Times obituary ended with a quote from one of his books, “Talking at the Boundaries” that reads “if robert lowell is a poet then i don’t want to be a poet if robert frost was a poet I don’t want to be a poet if socrates was a poet i’ll consider it.”
The Getty Research Institute hosted the memorial, since Antin had been a scholar-in-residence there, and they owned his archives. They screened old photos, played one of the tape-recorded poems, and 30 former students and colleagues stood up to share their memories — about 3-5 minutes each — a definite challenge for the gifted, articulate folks who were his friends. They rose to the challenge, and his wife of 55 years, performance artist/filmmaker/writer Eleanor Antin, didn’t have to stop them with the cowbell she’d brought along.
Among the words spoken: Enthusiastic. Inspiring. Compassionate. Generous. Gracious. Insightful. Eloquent. Original. Clashing intelligence. A bracing, provocative voice. Tremendous humor and brio. A phenomenon. “Talking with David always made you feel you were on the verge of an epiphany,” one said. “His mind was magic,” noted another.
His oldest friend, poet Jerome Rothenberg, offered a poem: “Can it be fair to write a love song to a friend? ... And does the poem exist when there is no one there to hear it?... Here is the death we feared/Infinite space to every side ... O my friends, there is no friend.”
Artists Debby and Larry Kline called for audience participation in “Cacophony,” asking everyone to read out loud, and at the same time, a poem of Antin’s folded inside their programs. Each piece was different, and the blend of voices created a grand orchestration of his work.
At the end, there was family: grandson Zachary and his father, Blaise, sharing personal anecdotes, and Eleanor concluding with Antin’s poem “History,” a catalog of deaths, wrecks and disappearances.
In an interview earlier, Eleanor had talked about their life together: The two New Yorkers — he from Brooklyn, she from the Bronx — first met at New York’s City College. They shared immigrant-parent backgrounds, February birthdays (he an Aquarius, she a Pisces) and an abiding love for art and each other.
“He was a philosopher-poet, not only brilliant, but anecdotal and amusing,” she said. “He’d think of something that interested him, talk about it, move around it like he was lost in a forest, but he always found his way out. Then he’d turn the tape recordings of his talks into a literary art form.”
He was an athlete, too, she said, going from high school football to running and weightlifting. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 10 years ago, Antin gradually stopped doing performances, but he went on writing and working out until his very last days. His personal trainer summed things up at the memorial, “He gave his all, until there was nothing left in the tank.”
This month, Eleanor will be in New York, reading from her latest book, “An Artist’s Life, by Eleanora Antinova,” a memoir of the former Ballets Russes star she created as a video alter ego decades ago. She will also be at the opening of “100 BOOTS: The LOST Picture Show,” an exhibit of photos from her famed 1970s postcard narrative that never fit into the original exhibitions.
“I’ll survive,” Eleanor said, on her husband’s birthday, two days before the Getty memorial. “David helped make me tough, but ‘missing’ is too mild a word for the situation.”