Personae of Interest

Eleanor Antin, Portrait of the King, 1972, gelatin silver print, 13 3/4 x 9 3/4". From the catalogue for “Multiple Occupancy: Eleanor Antin’s ‘Selves,’” 2013.

The Communist experience, Vivian Gornick wrote in her classic oral history The Romance of American Communism, is “a metaphor for fear and desire on the grand scale, always telling us more—never less—of what it is to be human.”

Now more or less confined to the historical imaginary, that romance lives on, travestied with appropriate fear and desire (and shock and awe) in Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens, and writ strategically small in Eleanor Antin’s comic girlhood memoir Conversations with Stalin, slyly named after the 1961 book that landed Communist dissident Milovan Djilas back in a Yugoslav jail.

For Antin, a photographer and performer whose practice makes use of dress-up and self-dramatization, Stalin is a figure of fantasy—a voice inside her head. She (like Gornick) was the Bronx-raised daughter of Yiddish-speaking Reds, and (also like Gornick) barely out of her teens when Nikita Khrushchev denounced, in 1956, the omnipotent deity who had presided over her childhood. Each of Conversations with Stalin’s sixteen anecdote-driven chapters ends in a blaze of magical realism, with protagonist “little Elly” having a rendezvous with the Soviet leader: “I never told anybody, but comrade Stalin and I were very close friends. For years, we used to meet up in Central Park and talk about stuff.”

Performance artist that she is, Antin channels Stalinist jargon, from which she derives some moral lesson (or not) regarding her latest misadventure. It’s a fey conceit, but thanks to Antin’s unsentimental portrait of Elly, together with her faux-naive ability to articulate Stalin’s logic and what might once have been called the party line, it’s actually pretty charming—as are the intermittent pen-and-ink drawings, which reinforce the sense of reading a parodic Popular Front children’s book. Stalin functions as Elly’s superego, both a confessor and a shrewd if fallible Big Brother, giving advice that might otherwise have come from Elly’s self-absorbed mother (an aspiring Yiddish actress turned manager of a failing Catskill resort) or her absent father (a Jewish wunderkind in Poland, employed by the garment industry as a cutter in New York).

Unusual for an immigrant Jewish family, it is Antin’s mother—rather than her father—who is the feckless dreamer. Antin’s sarcasm is never more Yiddish than when she writes of her mother’s optimism that “every day is a new day. Every sweepstake ticket is a new ticket. Each new corpse has a new will.” Comrade Stalin, however, is not impressed. “Such a bourgeois family,” he sneers at the end of a convoluted tale of separation and jealousy that features Antin’s kid sister threatening to jump out the window and winds up with her father peering in the window of the Russian Tea Room at his estranged wife and her new beau. “A compound of sentimentality and domestic strife.”

Stalin is typically gruff and often stodgy, reminding his young friend that “chance” is inevitably “annulled” by “the iron laws of historical necessity,” or haphazardly mixing metaphors, as when he declares, “Progress goes forward. It is an arrow. There can be setbacks, but always it picks up and marches on.” He can also be avuncular: “Little Elly, don’t you yet know that the artist is the servant of the proletariat? He must show them the contradictions in the world picture so they can band together and make the revolution for the future of mankind.”

More or less chronological, with plenty of backtracking, Conversations with Stalin follows Elly from grammar school in the 1940s to her part-time job as a receptionist at a start-up magazine devoted to TV listings. (The latter chapter ends with Stalin sternly chastising her for her impulsive decision to quit over the unfair treatment meted out to a fellow employee rather than staying to form a union.) World War II and the Cold War do not seem to impinge much on Elly’s consciousness—Antin is much more specific regarding what she wouldn’t eat or wear. Still, at age fifteen or so, Elly volunteers as a campaign worker, ringing doorbells in Harlem for left-wing congressman Vito Marcantonio. Confounded by an elderly blind man who always votes Republican, she is scolded by Stalin for failing to “open his eyes.”

Antin is evocative in reconstructing her grade-school mentalité, recalling how she returned to her room “to jump back into bed and play with my paperdolls”—an interest that would carry over into Antin’s adult art—“or read a book or maybe feel myself up.” But her best tales involve the summers teenage Elly spent working at her mother’s Catskill resort, Maud’s Summer-Ray. (Antin doesn’t make much of it, but the place was a kind of landmark, having been founded by the writer and artist Zuni Maud as a spa for Yiddish-speaking leftists and bohemians.) The most haunting story has Elly at the reception desk, trying to figure out what to say to a prospective guest who has phoned to ask if the hotel “accepts Negroes.” However campy, the no-nonsense fury of Stalin’s response suggests that the action Elly took would trouble her adult self: “You have shamed yourself, young woman. You have not behaved like a true communist.”

As an artist, Antin is known for her humorous and discomfiting psychodrama. Her work, she’s said, explores “the transformational nature of the self.” At one point, Antin considered being an actress, dropping out of City College to play Elma the teenage waitress in a road production of Bus Stop; her first videotape, Representational Painting (1971), is a silent thirty-eight-minute take of the half-dressed artist applying makeup while studying her image on a video monitor. Working variously in video, photography, performance, and film, Antin has adopted a number of personae—including a king, a nurse, and, most infamously, Eleanora Antinova, the African American prima ballerina of the Ballets Russes. In a way, she’s as much a personality as an artist.

Volatile, eccentric, often confused, Elly is another Antin role, and Conversations with Stalin is essentially performative. Indeed, Antin previewed the work as a series of gallery readings some months before it was published. Funny as it is, it’s even funnier if one supplies the artist’s stand-up timing and Bronx-inflected delivery: “One afternoon, I was reading The Brothers Karamazov, and idly wondering which brother I’d like to fuck.”

Asked to generalize about her “selves” in the interview published in the catalogue of her recent retrospective, “Multiple Occupancy,” Antin cracks that “they’re all losers.” That seems harsh. Elly, like all of the artist’s alter egos, is a thwarted idealist, not unlike the parental figures in Gornick’s romance. Her Stalin is something else. In the end, his composure cracks and the spell breaks. The ogre goes to his grave expressing fear and loathing for his own father, and sets Elly free.

J. Hoberman’s most recent book is Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema? (Verso, 2012).