‘My Work Has Always Been Political, Comic—and Also Sad’: Watch Artist Eleanor Antin Bring Her Paper Dolls of Presidential Candidates to Life

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21
Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Eleanor Antin: Politics & Paper Dolls." © Art21, Inc. 2016.

In exactly two months, Americans will vote in the presidential election, determining the social, economic, and cultural trajectory of the country for the foreseeable future.

In a prescient artwork aptly titled Theatre of the Absurd, the multitalented artist Eleanor Antin crafted paper dolls to resemble the outrageous characters running as Republican candidates in the 2016 presidential race. In an exclusive interview with Art21, Antin laughed darkly, saying, “I thought that I was finished working with paper dolls and was on to other things until those idiotic Republican debates and that insane list of characters.”

The installation features a diminutive Donald Trump hamming for the camera, Marco Rubio “trying to be noticed,” and Ted Cruz, who Antin describes as vampiric.

In the video, which originally aired in 2016 as part of Art21’s Extended Play series, Antin describes the surreality of seeing her work reinvented and re-performed as life unfolds it through a contemporary lens at this moment in time “with the similarities and the ambiguities—I realize, oh my god, this is like I was prophesying!”

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Eleanor Antin: Politics & Paper Dolls." © Art21, Inc. 2016.

Production still from the Art21 “Extended Play” film, “Eleanor Antin: Politics & Paper Dolls.” © Art21, Inc. 2016.

Antin’s opulent photographic series “The Last Days of Pompeii,” shot in La Jolla, California, draws parallels between the picturesque ancient city that was unknowingly on the brink of ruin and that of a wealthy 21st-century enclave, blissfully ignorant to the impending climate crisis, economic collapse, and societal inequities.

Antin’s work with paper dolls has also included creating likenesses of other artists she admires, including feminist icon Judy Chicago, the poet Jackson Mac Low, and the late painter Elizabeth Murray. Working with the figures allows Antin to keep their presence in her life, she says. “My work has always been political, has always been comic—and also sad” 

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series “Extended Play,” below.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.


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