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Just out of artist John Antone’s line of sight, things are threatening to devolve into a disastrous farce. Antone and I are standing outside the office building at 1110 Vermont Ave. NW, looking at the latest installment of Art Windows, the public art project he’s been curating for the past three years. The building is a forgettable 12-story beige-and-glass office cube, and the project, at first glance, isn’t all that amazing, either. It’s just a ground-floor display window that the building’s art-loving owner, Abbott Stillman, has turned over to Antone (via the District of Columbia Arts Center) to fill with whatever art he sees fit.

I’m having trouble paying attention to Antone’s earnest lecture about the project. The art is interesting enough—the windows to the right of the front door hold sculptures by Virginia artist Linda Thern-Smith (“She’s into UFOs,” says Antone); those to the left frame a sculptural collaboration in glass between Antone and a young Hungarian sculptor, Tibor Zielinski. But here comes potential trouble: A cleaning man, dragging behind him a canister vacuum cleaner, has set to work in the space holding Zielinski and Antone’s pieces, and he’s oblivious to the presence of Art.

Antone’s piece features a large glass cross suspended before a backdrop of reproduced $100 bills, and the cleaner backs right into it, butt first; then he sends it swaying perilously with a good bonk from the vacuum nozzle. Antone catches my startled eye and wheels around to catch this bit of unwitting burlesque. At first, he stands nonplused in indecision. Then he steps forward and taps lightly on the windowpane, but the cleaner can’t hear him. Finally, after the cleaner has again carelessly backed into the cross and is heading for Zielinski’s precariously balanced glass cube, Antone hurries inside and politely points out the nature of his surroundings. The cleaner, with a look none too impressed, goes right back to work.

Such are the hazards of public art. Or maybe such are the hazards of being Antone, who at first blush seems like the Rodney Dangerfield of Washington art. Given his bearing, which is recessive in the extreme, along with Art Windows’ modest scale and its almost nonexistent profile in the D.C. art scene, it’s hard not to ask: How seriously can you take this guy?

If you’ve never heard of Art Windows—and you probably haven’t—that’s largely by design. Antone doesn’t advertise his project or even list its offerings in local newspapers.

“The whole point of Art Windows is to make art a part of everyday life,” insists Antone in his soft, hesitant voice. “If people want to look, they can. Or not.”

He cites as an inspiration the art collective Fluxus, active in the ’50s and ’60s. (Claes Oldenberg and Yoko Ono were sometime participants.) “Fluxus did street art that wasn’t salable—that was the point,” Antone says. “They objected to people looking at art as money. A situation like this”—Art Windows—”brings art to everyday life in a simple, uncommercial way.”

Fair enough: Art Windows is a deliberately low-key, community-minded art project, typified, say, by Antone’s very first installation: a display of art by grade school students at Adams Morgan’s Marie Reed School. DCAC head B. Stanley, who picked Antone to run Art Windows, says Antone got deeply involved in curating the show, selecting work only after meeting with young artists and looking extensively at their work. “The show made me remember why you get into art in the first place,” Antone recalls. “It was totally free of that commercialization and jockeying you get in the commercial art world. It was a passionate, innocent show.”

But while Art Windows may keep a low

profile, it’s hardly community-based. The

Marie Reed show notwithstanding, much of the art Antone has sought out for Art Windows is anything but local. The current installation featuring Zielinski is an example. The London-based artist came to Washington last spring expressly to work with Antone, after the two met and worked together at a sculpture symposium in Hungary.

Zielinski is not Antone’s first import: In 1997, Art Windows’ first year, Antone managed to get a Fulbright grant for the Indian sculptor Biman Das (whom he’d met while working in India), on the basis mostly of Das’ creation of a sculptural installation for Art Windows. “The woman who processed the grant said she had never heard of anything quite like that before,” Antone says proudly—a Fulbright for a show in the display windows of a Washington office building. (At the urging of the Fulbright folks, Antone also helped Das set up a few lectures during his two-month visit.)

Take a look at Antone’s resume, and it turns out he’s spent much of the past several years doing art projects abroad: In 1997, he got himself invited to do public art projects in Russia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Last year, he displayed work at an international exhibition of bronze sculpture in Ravenna, Italy, had a one-man show at the Central European University in Budapest, and created new work at the Hungarian symposium where he met Zielinski.

Art Windows is often at the center of his internationalism, a sort of chit in a game of global artistic exchange. Antone invited Zielinski to come to Washington after their meeting in Hungary; this fall, Zielinski will return the favor and host Antone for collaboration on an experimental film. Zielinski, meanwhile, has introduced Antone to colleagues in London’s Outsider movement—an international band of artists devoted to art outside the commercial mainstream. Antone spent a week in London in March; as a result, he and Outsider artist Maria Kheirkhah are talking about putting together an Art Windows show.

One can’t help but wonder: Is it John Antone, reticent schlub, or

John Antone, International Man of Mystery? Shy Guy, or master of the universe?

DCAC’s Stanley acknowledges that Antone is “quite unheralded” in Washington—but “John stands head and shoulders above a lot of other folks here.” The main thing to understand about Antone, he says, is that “he sees the broader arts scene as the playground. Just because you can’t get something shown at Baumgartner doesn’t mean you’re not a real artist.”

Ayesha Davis, a Washington-based arts producer, says that, yes, Antone is shy—and that may be why there are many lesser talents who are better known than he; they are better at self-promotion. “In this interdisciplinary world he’s created,” Davis remarks, “he’s made it hard for himself to be put in one category—which means

it’s hard to assign him a particular kind of success.”

Davis picked Antone to collaborate on a project in Tokyo later this year. The Japanese avant-garde dance troupe Yan-Shu will present a dance version of a play by Gao Xing Jian, a Chinese theater major domo and democracy movement provocateur now in exile in Paris. Working closely with Gao and the dance troupe, Antone will develop a sculptural interpretation of Gao’s play for the production.

“John is very good at moving into other cultures,” Davis says, “but not imposing himself on them….He’s always looking for new ways to do art—and to collaborate.”

Collaboration seems to be Antone’s chief calling. The 49-year-old artist has been kicking around the D.C. art scene for a while—and, as he concedes, not always happily. By the mid-’80s, he’d found some success as a sculptor (he was represented for a while by the Franz Bader Gallery), but he admits that his career never got full traction here. Some of his happiest hours were spent outside sculpture proper: In the late ’80s, he forged a continuing relationship with Robert McNamara’s SCENA Theatre, working somewhere between sculpture and stage design—which is the way he hopes to work with Yan-Shu. “It’s like a family, during the length of the production,” he says.

He also has an extended “family” overseas—the product of his extensive networking. He first started globetrotting in the early ’90s, when he was trying to escape a bout of depression by joining an arts exchange program in India. (He keeps a dossier full of articles about himself in various languages I can’t read.) His collaborations with Indian artists drew a lot of media attention, whereas at home, he saw himself as out of sync with much of contemporary American art. He (politely) abhors the politically correct art of the ’90s, just as he did the conceptual art of the ’80s. “In America,” he observes, “popular culture has won.” He gives a delicate grimace. “There’s not much room for gentleness here.”

On a mid-June trip to London, I visit some of Antone’s Art Windows contacts. I sit in on an Outsider workshop held in somebody’s friend’s rehearsal space, way up in an old church tower across the river in North Lambeth. (The friend, I learn later, is an acrobat—hence the trapezes hanging from the rafters.) Outsider movement founder Janos Agocsi, a composer and classical guitarist, performs a couple of recent works accompanied by a lanky New Zealander on upright bass; there is poetry from a Russian, a German, and a darkly brilliant Englishman named Jeremy Reed. Zielinski shows a short film.

Everybody is eager to meet me, because they all take the process of constant international cross-pollination for granted: I’m part of a chain that leads back to Washington—and to John Antone.

Later, I talk to avant-garde opera composer Robert Robertson, organizer of Renegade Arts, an international film-and-filmmaker exchange that hosted a showing of Antone’s short film SHE in London in March. We talk about Robertson’s desire to set up a Renegade Arts outpost in D.C., following earlier exchanges with Paris, Prague, Budapest, Moscow, and New York. “It seems to me the underground scene in New York has rather dried up now,” he says thoughtfully. “And in San Francisco, as well. But how about Washington?” he demands. Then, eagerly, he adds, “My impression is that there may be some rougher, livelier stuff coming out of D.C. How about it?” John Antone, what have you been telling the world out there? CP

The current Art Windows installment runs through July 23 at 1110 Vermont Ave. NW. The film section of Antone’s SHE will be shown at the District of Columbia Arts Center, 2438 Columbia Road, on July 17.