Retrospective exhibitions are strange things. Yes, they consist of collections of artworks, just like any other art exhibition. It's the "retro" part that can get sticky. Looking back as they do, they run the risk of being maudlin. Retrospectives often seem to come too late, after an artist has died, or they chart an artist's work after it has turned a decided corner. Sometimes they signal a sea change in the art world; in other cases, a retrospective is nothing more than a handy business strategy meant to re-establish the marketability of an artist who has fallen out of the limelight.
Two exhibitions running currently in St. Louis make intriguing challenges to the standard operating procedure of the retrospective. Eleanor Antin: A Retrospective is on view at Washington University's Gallery of Art; Moira Dryer: Paintings, 1989-1992 is showing at the Forum for Contemporary Art. Neither one of these shows feels maudlin; neither seems to signal the clear endpoint of a career. Both come off as celebrations of creative productivity by intensely engaged -- albeit very different -- artists.
Antin is so deserving of a retrospective that it's curious that no one thought of it until recently, when Howard Fox, curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, approached Antin about organizing one. (The exhibition comes to St. Louis courtesy of the efforts of Washington University's Sabine Eckmann.) The resulting exhibition is a collection of works from Antin's astonishing career, which spans more than 30 years.
Antin's work almost demands to be considered retrospectively because so much of her production is connected, conceptually and visually. A large part of her career has been devoted to developing characters, such as the King, the Ballerina and the Nurse, whose lives and stories she performs, documents or otherwise represents in any number of ways. These characters are Antin's alter egos to a certain degree, but they are also vehicles she uses to investigate a broad swath of social and cultural history.
This exhibition allows us, for the first time, to get a full sense of the characters, in all the fictional forms they have taken. We see the video of Antin transforming herself into the King, her regal male alter ego. We see the photographs of the King, engaging unsuspecting Solana Beach residents in conversations about the sad state of his "Kingdom." We see the King's costume, and the "King's Meditations," delicate pen-and-ink sketches and written reveries on life in his imagined realm.
It has recently become fashionable to consider Antin a kind of vanishing mediator who made possible (without due credit) a whole host of artistic investigations into role-playing and identity fictions (think Cindy Sherman, for example). But to assign Antin such a position is to focus too narrowly on "identity" questions, which may in the end be the least interesting part of her work, and to ignore her use of characters to reveal a whole range of cultural and aesthetic practices throughout history. Antin's characters take us to every imaginable cultural and historical space, from '70s action movies to the Russian Revolution, from the battlefields of the American Civil War to a Jewish shtetl in Eastern Europe. The breadth of her engagement with history is only obvious once her work is considered in this retrospective format.
Beautifully mounted at Washington University, Antin's retrospective also rightly foregrounds the conceptual works that are not character-driven. Prominently featured are the "Blood of a Poet Box" (1965-68) and "Carving: A Traditional Sculpture" (1972), well-known milestones of early conceptualism. But the show also rescues other extremely important pieces from virtual obscurity. Among them are "Library Science" (1971), the hilarious "4 Transactions" (1972) and "Domestic Peace" (1971-72), all of which deserve to be regarded as some of the most important conceptual feminist works of the 1970s.
Eleanor Antin: A Retrospective is guaranteed to make converts of those unfamiliar with her work. Even those who thought they knew Antin will likely be surprised at the sheer number of media she has mastered. Antin moves deftly from low-tech conceptual pieces involving typewriters and notebook paper to pen-and-ink drawings, photography, video, films, sculptural installations and, of course, performance. The fact that Antin is enjoying a retrospective exhibition should not imply that she's at the end of her creative trail. Viewers should use this retrospective to get up to speed on Antin's work -- and then watch where she takes us from here.
Moira Dryer: Paintings, 1989-1992 is a retrospective of another sort. Curated by Gregory Salzman for the Art Gallery of York University, Toronto, this exhibition invites us to contemplate work that an amazingly talented abstract painter produced in the last three years of her life, before she died of breast cancer at the age of 34.
It's hard to believe these paintings are all almost a decade old. They are as fresh and sure as works done yesterday. Had Dryer lived longer, she would certainly have established a reputation as one of the major abstract artists working anywhere. In her relatively short career, she had already enjoyed a number of solo exhibitions, and people in the know -- artists, curators and writers alike -- were aware that she was bringing something desperately needed to the landscape of painting of the late 1980s.
Remembering exactly what was going on in painting in the 1980s is enough to send shivers down the spine. Figural painting had reached a sort of pathetic end-game, with artists like Julian Schnabel, David Salle and even Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat all weighing in with incredibly overblown, uneven stuff. There were, however, interesting things stirring among younger artists in the area of abstraction. Brice Marden and Ross Bleckner were among the bright spots. So was Moira Dryer.
Dryer worked with paint on wood panel. Sometimes she allowed colors to wash down the panel's surface, like translucent veils; other times, her colors were corralled into tamer vertical stripes, which nevertheless reveal the hand and the brush that brought them into being. Splotches and drips often found their way into her pieces, but their appearance was more engineered than unexpected. Dryer struck a pitch-perfect combination of structure and chance in her works. They veered between the poles of minimalist control and expressionist abandon.
Dryer's sense of color was astounding. She combined intense blues with somber blacks or gave herself over to pistachio green and cool butter cream. She played with varieties of values by mixing colors with milky white or allowing the paint to bleed its oily halo directly into the panel.
Although Dryer's works are obviously paintings, in subtle and witty ways they also insist on being read as sculptural objects. Dryer drilled holes in her panels, inviting us to peek inside, or installed rubber grommets in their surfaces, or carved cartoonlike scallops around their edges. "Front Line" (1991), the largest work among the group, rests on an iron stand, as if apologizing for its ungainliness. "Untitled" (1991) and "The Tourist Part II" (1990) are actually assemblages, part painting and part object, that evoke old-fashioned carrying cases.
It's easy to get carried away when describing Dryer's works. Looking at this retrospective collection of pieces from the last years of her life, the level of aesthetic achievement that she had reached before her death is obvious. Inevitably, they also suggest major untapped potential, raising equally unavoidable questions: What more would Dryer have achieved had she lived? Where else would she have gone? There's no answering. With Dryer's work, we can't look forward; we have to be content looking back.