Eleanor Antin, Judgement of Paris (after Rubens), Eleanor Antin, 2007. Chromogenic print, 38 x 73 in. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York
Eleanor Antin, The Tourists, Eleanor Antin, 2007. Chromogenic print, 61 x 77 7/8 in. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.
Eleanor Antin: Excerpts Of A Memoir
I fell in love with ancient Greece.
I played hooky from school and got to the museum early so I’m the only one in the Greek rooms. Except for the guard, of course. The guard’s a killjoy. But when he isn’t looking I can go up to a youth on a pedestal and stroke his cool white thigh, if I can reach it. I’m pretty short for my age. But I can peek under his tunic. I wish I could slip my hand under there and feel his balls but I’m chicken. I can’t tell if he’s attracted to me. He looks down at me with blind eyes. Ancient Greeks don’t have eyeballs. I pull my hand away before the guard sees me and gets all uptight. But my heart breaks at the loneliness of marble. The poor thing has only one arm, the other one must be on a pedestal in London or in a bank vault in Japan. Cripples every one of them. They’re cemented together: you can see the seams. Some don’t have heads and only half of their chests. I want to comfort them, even though I know that some of them aren’t Greeks. They’re Romans, Romans aren’t as good as Greeks. But what the hell! They’re all in the same boat now. Sometimes the guard catches me feeling them up and throws me out of the museum. But I change my hairstyle and sneak back.
One day, Comrade Stalin says the ancient Greeks were bad. They didn’t let everybody vote and they looked down their noses at foreigners. “They were stuck up, little Elly, Aristocrats. Their slaves ploughed the fields and baked the bread and sewed those sheets together to cover their naked flesh. Without slaves they would never have invented philosophy.”
I think of those great blank eyes staring down at me. It’s clear now what they’re thinking. Send her around to the back. She’s a foreigner, a daughter of Abraham. Out! I’m heartbroken. Tears burn my eyes. “So the museum is off limits, comrade?”
“Of course not, little Elly. Culture elevates the soul and makes it sing. Consider the ancient Egyptians. They were working people. Their artists carved bakeries and factories and warehouses and granaries and markets. They valued the labor of the common man.”
So I did, but it wasn’t the same. Knowledge is hard and strewn with bodies. The next time I played hooky I went to the movies.
Later, I modeled for painters when I was in college and even later when I was an actor looking for work. It beat working in an office or getting emphysema in a coffee shop. It paid pretty well in those days and was relatively easy.
One winter, I worked for Eugene Speicher. He was very small. A lot of those realist painters were very small. He had a great studio with a balcony running along one wall and this cool natural light coming in through the vaulted ceiling. His nasty wife used to come out from her room upstairs and lean over the railing to check on his work. She never said hello to me. Maybe she thought it was spring and I was a still life. He said that’s what he painted in the spring and summer: flowers. In the fall and winter, he did portraits. He had one of Mrs. Whitney coming up and he needed models after doing flowers for so long. “To get my hand back,” he said.
He did a charming little portrait of me over several days. One afternoon, he looked at it sadly and remarked that it was a nice picture. Then he took up his paint rag and wiped off the image in 3 swift moves. I jumped out of my pose and ran over to look. My pretty likeness was gone. Just a lot of smudged paint. “Why, did you do that?” I wailed. “It was so pretty.”
“I was only getting my hand in before doing Mrs. Whitney,” he said. “I told you that.”
“But why didn’t you just hang it up on your wall? Why didn’t you give it to me?” I felt like crying.
“Stop talking to her, you idiot,” the wife shouted from upstairs. “Go get dressed, you girl. Out with you!”
He patted my hand kindly. “I can’t do too many pictures, dear. It lowers my prices.”
-excerpt from Eleanor Antin’s memoir, “Conversations with Stalin” (2011).