The artist Eleanor Antin described her own early practice as a critical engagement with dominant positions in Conceptual art, as they were largely shaped by white male artists on the U.S. East Coast in the late 1960s. In contrast to the advocates of a strict, analytical Conceptual art, she argued that, instead of limiting itself to self-reflexive pirouettes, art should take the “character of human reality” as its subject. Differently from many of her (especially male) contemporaries, she criticized the universalist notion of a general human experience of reality. Instead, she employed conceptualist strategies specifically to negotiate social roles and norms as well as interpersonal relationships. In a series of early works, she chose the genre of portraiture to question criteria of identity ascription, to address the role of women in the art world, and to reflect the social climate of her time.
Using the work Library Science (1971) as an example, I will demonstrate how Antin expanded the promise of an easier dissemination of artistic projects that was central to early Conceptual art by using her work to purposefully establish and address communicative and social relationships. In doing so, she conceived of communication neither as a utopian vision of a worldwide dissemination of ideas nor as a harmonious exchange among like-minded individuals, but rather as a process situated within specific groups that could be marked by misunderstandings and fraught with obstacles. She criticized forms of feminist art practice that were based on idealized notions of gender solidarity. Thus, while her practice did not represent an absolute counter-proposal, it did represent a position that diverged from the early feminist art scene in Southern California, which was shaped by pioneering figures like Judy Chicago. Antin’s insistence on complete freedom from restrictions, not only in terms of her artistic means, but also in her choice of roles and identities, additionally establishes connections between her work and more recent perspectives on identity politics and the way they have been adressed in the field of contemporary art.