An artist we don’t think enough about or include in discussions about Caribbean art is Janine Antoni. Her brother Robert Antoni is better known in the world of Caribbean writing. Perhaps this is because despite Antoni’s Bahamian/Trinidadian background she rarely references the Caribbean and her work has been effortlessly absorbed into the mainstream of Euro-American art. Still, young Caribbean artists have much to learn from this ethereal veteran of the contemporary art world about how to build an artistic practice, how to sustain it, how to nurture it without compromising yourself, the intimacy of your work or your ideals. Like many artists all over the world, and particularly in the Caribbean, Antoni had to figure out on her own how to fit herself and her work into the ‘business’ of art. Excerpted below are relevant portions of a 2008 Reality Check interview with Jackie Battenfield in which Antoni discusses how she got her start after graduating from RISD, the importance of audience, how to work with galleries and other art professionals, and how to negotiate the commercial side of an art practice.
JACKIE: So, when you left school and came to New York, how did you get yourself started? Did you visit the non-profits?
JANINE: Well, I found out that the Drawing Center would see anybody in those days. You could bring your drawings in and put them on the floor and they would look at them. So, I knew that I had a guaranteed studio visit of sorts. At the time, I did not make drawings. It was not a part of my process. I took the first date the Drawing Center offered. It was six months away. I drew for the next six months, preparing for that visit, and then to my surprise, I got a show. After the show, they gave me a job. So, that was also my first job in New York. I did a year of practical training, because I am a foreigner, so it was perfect. From there, Olivia Georgia gave me a show at Snug Harbor (on Staten Island). Thereafter, I exhibited at Artist Space. So, in those days, that’s how you did it. You began with the non-profits and then the commercial galleries found you there.
JACKIE: Is that how you would recommend artists do it these days?
JANINE: I don’t think that’s the way it’s done these days. At least, in the case of the emerging artists that I am most in touch with, some are showing in galleries before they leave the school. You can probably still do it through the non-profits and they certainly fill a role. It was great for me to begin my career at the non-profits because I didn’t have to deal with the commercial world. I could concentrate on learning to install my work and watch how it was being received before having to deal with the commercial side of things.
JACKIE: What is the best piece of advice that you got early on in your career?
JANINE: The best piece of advice is something that my husband, Paul, said.
JACKIE: You two met at RISD?
My main support came from my peers. We all moved to New York together, which I think was unique to our generation. I came here with Paul Ramirez Jonas, Spencer Finch, Beth Haggart, Ricky Albenda, and Andrea Zittel. It was quite an amazing group. And we all shared studios, living, got each other jobs and shows, and helped each other to make and install our work. So, I came with a readymade community. We had already developed a pretty rigorous dialogue in school. It was also important to meet other artists, because we had all been taught by the same teachers. All of us had a similar approach, even though our work was very different. Meeting other artists really broadened my education and made me realize there were all these other ways of making and thinking about art.
But, the advice that Paul gave me was: “You build your audience one viewer at a time.” And that is something that still rings in my mind.
JACKIE: So, you were talking about audience all the way back?
JANINE: I think I’m a little bit of a weirdo in that way. I’m really thinking about the viewer all the time, even though my work is so much about me.
JACKIE: But I am really intrigued with that, because I do find that when I lecture and ask artists, “Who is your audience? Who is your viewer?” they look at me blankly like they have never ever considered that concept. And yet, how can you know where to put your work or what opportunities to pursue if you don’t?
JANINE: Well, yes, you definitely need to know who your viewer is. That’s one issue. The other issue is to know who you want your viewer to be. And then, the thing that I always encourage in teaching is to fantasize about that viewer. For me, the creative process is about the perpetual shift from being in my own body as the maker to then trying to step into the body of the viewer. I think about how they walk, what they think first, and what they think second. But then, if you have a notion of the audience that you would like to reach, that affects all of your decisions. From where to show, to what you make, and so on. There is another way of looking at it. You put something out in the world, certain kinds of people respond to it, and you then have to understand why. For example, in the case of my work, why do women respond differently to it than men? This is crucial to the way I think about what I make. Why does a particular culture have a strong response to my work? Why do I get more shows in Spain than in Germany? And then, there is the issue of venue. There is a gallery audience, there is a museum audience, and there is a public audience. I recently showed in Luang Prabang, Laos where there are no galleries or museums in the city, so they have a limited exposure to contemporary art. In this case, you obviously have to give a context for the work or else it doesn’t make any sense at all to the viewer.
JACKIE: Isn’t it up to the curator to make the context for the work? I mean, how does the artist?
JANINE: Well, that’s a good question. That’s another way I think you define yourself as an artist. I would say that we make that context together. It’s about a kind of collaboration. The first thing I ask when a curator asks me to be in a show is, “Why? What about my work makes sense for the theme of your show?” I tell them whether I agree with that and then we work together to really talk about their idea versus my idea. They are not always the same and sometimes, that’s okay.
JACKIE: Because it reveals something new to you?
JANINE: At times, the differences between our ideas reveal something new to me. In the best-case scenario, it provides a new avenue into my work. The curator might have a broader idea, because they are putting a lot of work together. I want to be aware of my role within that broader notion. I’m happy to play my role within that. I provide certain things. In the gallery, there is a group of artists and hopefully each one has a unique voice, but together it is one perspective. It’s good to be aware of what you have to offer.
JACKIE: I like that.
JANINE: Again, it’s about the audience, because you only learn what you have to offer by how people respond to your work. Sometimes, you come to realize that you don’t want to offer what is being perceived, and then you have to rethink the whole project. It is a dialogue between you and this viewer and if you’re not paying attention to who that viewer is, then the dialogue doesn’t exist. For me, the dialogue’s really the exciting part. Are you communicating and how?
JACKIE: I find that some artists will say, “I don’t want to think about another viewer.” They worry that it will somehow dilute what they are making.
JANINE: When I first began to show, I loved the idea of site specificity as a concept, but I was not fully formed. Snug Harbor was a perfect example. I got there and I became so involved with the site that I lost my core. And so, I look at that work and wonder whether it was mine. Now, I feel like I can go, and find myself in a site. But that’s about knowing yourself as an artist, and that takes years to do.
There is certainly a conversation that you are having with yourself in the work. That’s important and I don’t think you want to lose that, but the conversation you have with yourself and the conversation you have with the viewer don’t necessarily have to be in conflict. If an artist is afraid that thinking about the viewer will dilute the work, then why show at all? You would just make work in your studio and have a great time with yourself. There would be no need to put it into the world.
JACKIE: Did you get any business skills or professional skills at RISD?
JACKIE: So, how did you learn to work with other professionals? How did you learn about the collaborative nature of being with a curator or how to work with your gallerist?
JANINE: I learned by making a lot of mistakes, I guess. I mean, I certainly had a lot of advice and people that I could call up and say, “What do I do now?” Older women artists, like Kiki Smith were really generous with their advice. I had my mother, who is a very good businesswoman. She taught me to be self-sufficient and to be aware. I think as artists, we hate that stuff. We just want to close an eye to it. She taught me that to know what’s going on is to be in power. That was a really good lesson. I have really taken that advice to the extreme. I mean, my gallery does a lot for me, but certainly at the beginning, I took the time to figure out what that whole art world was about in all of its details. I represented myself for three years. During that time, I had to do everything and I learned a great deal. Because I had done the gallery’s job, I knew exactly what I wanted when it came time to choose a gallery.
JACKIE: Was this between galleries?
JANINE: This was between Sandra Gering and Luhring Augustine.
JACKIE: So, you were self-managed.
JANINE: Yeah. And then, I just kept that system going. In fact, the gallery and I work in a parallel way. Everything that they have, I have.
JACKIE: What’s the advantage to that?
JANINE: I think the advantages are that you become part of all the decisions that dictate your career. Certainly, they know more than I know when it comes to what collections I should be in. When they say, “We think we should offer your work to this collector,” I ask “Why?” I want to know, “What work do they have? Have they ever put anything up to auction?” etc.
JACKIE: The goal is to make the effort to create any professional association as a partnership. You’re partners here, so it’s not handing over your career. It’s partnering. It’s two or more people collaborating on the decisions.
JANINE: I think we go in both directions. I use what they do for me as an opportunity to learn about how the commercial world works, but they are privy to my thinking from the beginnings of a project. So, I don’t just hand them an object at the end. I make sure that they have followed my creative process from the beginning. By the time they get the object, they understand it on all levels.
JACKIE: And you choose to work with a gallery that wants that kind of relationship.
JANINE: Yes, we find each other. I feel like they have something to offer me. I assume that all the professionals that I work with, whether it is the curator or the collector, are interested in how I make my decisions, and want to know what the creative process is like for me. To me, the creative process is what gives an object its value. So, I assume that we all love that part.
JACKIE: It sounds like you allow them to have a degree of intimacy and that carries over to how they can talk about the work with the collector or the curator.
JANINE: But also an intimacy that gets them excited about the show when they put it in their gallery. I’m not only talking about my dealers. I’m talking about the people who work in the gallery. I’m talking about the people who guard the work. My assistants and the docents. I’m talking about everyone that comes into contact with the work. As many as I can let in, I do. At the core, my work is very intimate. This is what I seek in all that I do.
JACKIE: I remember something you said when I brought the AIM artists to your studio that I have quoted ever since: “Your galleries interests are not exactly your own.”
JANINE: Yeah. It’s more complicated than that. I’d like to think that at some level, whether I’m working with a curator or gallery, we put the art first. But you know, their job is different than my job. They have something that is motivating them and I have something that is motivating me. One has to be realistic. I have to protect the work and make sure that it’s seen in the right way. That protection goes beyond the way it’s made, to the way it’s shown and talked about. Curators and gallerists have skills that I don’t have, and I want them to do their job. And I try to give them whatever tools help them represent me in the best possible way. Once this relationship is established, there needs to be trust on both sides.
JACKIE: A gallerist will have commercial interests at heart. They have staff. They have those exorbitant rents to pay. They want to think long term for you, but they have to think long term for themselves. There can be slightly divergent issues. You would be amazed by how little artists understand that. I don’t know what they think they are getting in a gallerist, Mom, Dad, or some unconditional love, but that is not there and it’s inappropriate.
JANINE: It’s interesting, because I think each artist has different needs. Like I said, each artist fulfills a different role for their gallery. It’s even more refined than that. Each gallery has a vision and a way they think things should operate. It’s really about finding two visions that somewhat align. I really feel like my gallery understands what makes me tick and what I think is important. And I know that I am different from other artists that they represent.
JACKIE: But you have gone through the trouble of educating them in a gracious and generous way.
JANINE: Yeah. We worked with each other for a year or two before we made a commitment. That way we both could explore whether it was a good fit.
What are some of your other guiding thoughts?
JANINE: Follow your Love.
Know what you are good at.
Get help with what you are not good at.
Make decisions that allow you to make work for the rest of your life.
Create an art family.
Help each other.
Fantasize about the viewer.
Don’t be too narrow at the beginning.
For instance, I could still be making chocolate sculptures, and that would be a disaster. You are defined by the thing that gets you noticed, and there is an incredible pull to repeat yourself. I think that the wider you make your base at the beginning, the more possibility you have for the rest of your life. Saying all of that, I think of On Kawara. You could make a fabulous contribution finding the nuances of a very narrow space. Wide view is my territory. Finding the same thing in very diverse forms.
JACKIE: But again, it is following your own advice. Knowing yourself. And for you that wouldn’t have been enough. It wouldn’t have been satisfying.
JANINE: And then I wrote down a few other things:
Don’t get too good at making something.
Work at the edge of your capability.
Take a position.
Make rules and them break them, slowly.
Question every gesture in the making
For the full interview please go here.