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The opening of Lynda Benglis at the New Museum marked a surprising milestone in the artist’s career: despite having been a fixture of the New York art world since her arrival from New Orleans in 1964, it was her first solo museum exhibition in New York. What took so long? The story behind Contraband (1968), installed in the New Museum’s glassed-in lobby gallery and the first piece encountered by visitors to the show, hints at reasons for Benglis’s absence. It is a prime example of her “fallen paintings,” the vast “spills” of pigmented latex for which Benglis is best known. Contraband was created for an exhibition in which it never appeared: the Whitney Museum’s 1969 Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials, a defining show of Postminimal art co-curated by Marcia Tucker and James Monte. Benglis was invited to participate, but her entry, a nearly forty-foot-long slick of Day Glo latex, was not welcome. It was to be installed in proximity to a lead “splash piece” by Richard Serra and paintings by Robert Ryman; but, as Benglis recalled to this author in a 2006 conversation, Tucker worried that the piece was too large and would distract from the Serra. When the decision was made to install Contraband on a ramp near the museum’s entrance, Benglis withdrew from the show (Lynda Benglis, telephone interview with the author; November 9, 2004).
One of the great revelations of Lynda Benglis was the degree to which the artist’s work should be understood as a social project, calibrated to expose the art world’s implicit rules of engagement, especially pertaining to gender. As the thought of a forty-foot Day Glo expanse next to a Serra and a Ryman implies, Benglis’s work was extremely disruptive in the context of the New York art scene of the 1960s and 1970s, where industrial materials, factory fabrication, and conceptualism ruled the day. Even in its current faded and brittle condition, it is clear that Contraband was conceived as Minimalism’s repressed other, allowing the intrusion of nature, politics, and the lived female body: “I thought about bodily emissions, blood, Vietnam, maps, seeing the Earth from space, the edges of land formations, cloud formations, weather, oil slicks on water, the bayou of Louisiana. It was both illusion and allusion,” Benglis remarked during our conversation.
Throughout her career, Benglis has been a kind of aesthetic gadfly, asserting femininity and the body as well as craft and kitsch within mainstream art-world contexts rather than the frequently marginalized domain of feminist art. From the earliest work in the exhibition—a popsicle-stick shaped board layered with pigmented wax from 1966—it was clear that one of Benglis’s abiding interests has been to reconceive painting through non-art materials and processes, a preoccupation unwelcome in the resolutely anti-painting climate of the 1960s and early 1970s. A 1970 Life magazine spread on successors to Jackson Pollock, on display along with other ephemera, showed Benglis gracefully lunging as she poured Day Glo latex onto the floor, demonstrating a sensuous bodily engagement with the act of art making, a feminized update of Hans Namuth’s famous photographs of Jackson Pollock painting. By the late 1960s, Benglis was also “painting” by pouring thick polyurethane on the floor as well as in corners, the gallery itself employed as a mold. Taking cues from both Serra and Carl Andre, Benglis turned to lead, and then, in a nod to the tradition of sculpture, she embraced bronze; hardened into piles on the floor or in the corner, the effect of these metallic pours is both scatological and suggestive of melted-down monuments.
In the 1970s, Benglis crafted monumental installations using inexpensive materials. As a young female artist making environmental-scale work, this was a matter of pragmatism as much as an aesthetic or ideological position. The difficulty of finding institutions or collectors to store or preserve large-scale pieces merged with a contemporary ethos of producing nonsalable work, and most of Benglis’s environments from the 1970s have been destroyed. The show featured a notable exception: Phantom, five frozen waves of phosphorescent polyurethane foam affixed to the gallery wall, was commissioned by Kansas State University in 1971. Though all components were preserved, one element was sold into a private collection. On this occasion, all five waves were reunited for the first time since the Kansas installation. Glowing under black lights in a darkened gallery, Phantom possessed a campy sci-fi theatricality and, like much of Benglis’s oeuvre from the 1960s and 1970s, is both absurd and physically, formally compelling.
Also revived for the exhibition was Primary Structures (Paula’s Props) (1975), an installation of cast aluminum columns—two broken, one fallen, another topped with a plastic ficus tree and another with a toy car—arrayed over flowing purple velvet fabric. The title refers to the definitive 1966 exhibition, Primary Structures, featuring Minimalist art at the Jewish Museum (in which Benglis did not participate). Benglis’s Ionic columns are anathema to the eponymous exhibition’s ethos of geometric structures distanced from classical referent and free of ornamentation, while also riffing on the artist’s Greek heritage. The send-up did not go over well; Primary Structures was panned by Hilton Kramer as “shopworn kitsch.” The pastiche of classical and lowbrow sources would soon become an overly familiar gambit of postmodern appropriation, but in 1975 Benglis was simply doing what she wanted, with no regard for salability, fashion, or theory.
Benglis was not only unbowed by charges of kitsch, but fully exploited the gender- and class-specific implications of the crafty, lowbrow, and cheap. While creating gallery-sized installations like Phantom and Primary Structures in the 1970s, she also fashioned whimsical ornaments or “totems,” as Benglis called them, from plaster, paper, cellophane, and chicken wire, which evoke the props and lagniappes of Mardi Gras (Lynda Benglis, 286). The exhibition contained a half-dozen plastered mesh and cotton “sleeves,” tied in knots or allowed to hang limply on the wall, their “cosmetic finishes” adorned with glitter and metallic and pastel paints—again, an extension of painting, but in the service of decorative, sparkly baubles that would please a child (ibid.). The catalogue documents dozens of such “knots” executed in the 1970s, several mischievously decorated with Pollockian splatters.
Pairings of high and low, as well as fugitive and permanent materials, are themes Benglis explored throughout her career, and in the 1980s and 1990s, she increasingly probed the boundaries of art and craft. She made lagniappes in more permanent materials during these decades, producing dozens of crumpled bronze swags and bows through the 1990s, as well as twisted, abstract ceramic knots. The most recent works in the show, Figure 2, Figure 5, and Figure 6 (2009)—knotty black forms that look like oversized mold growing on the gallery wall—were modeled from spray foam and cast in bronze. Noguchi-inspired paper lamps appeared as well, installed in proximity to Contraband in the lobby gallery. To say that this pairing seemed incongruous would be to miss the point: Benglis’s career has been premised on radical experimentation and incongruity, which the exhibition brought to the fore. The catalogue further reveals the extent of her material explorations of the last twenty years (which, amazingly, include glasswork, stainless steel, neon, tapestry, and lithography), while also providing ample documentation of Benglis’s bygone or far-flung work, such as public commissions in Korea and India or fountains in New Orleans, and dozens of installation photographs that reveal the astonishing breadth of Benglis’s career by picturing works now destroyed.
Accounts of the 1960s and more recent art have ignored the majority of Benglis’s oeuvre, collapsing her career into a couple salient entries: the “fallen paintings” that were well known and documented in the 1960s, and “the Artforum ad,” one of the most notorious performative artworks of all time. The two-page “centerfold” (as Benglis conceived it) ran in the November 1974 issue that also contained a laudatory feature on Benglis by Robert Pincus-Witten. The ad was purchased by Benglis and, as everyone knows by now, featured the artist posing nude with a double-ended dildo, body greased and tanned, confronting the viewer with a confident gaze (through cat eye sunglasses). The “sexual lawlessness” of this image, as art historian Richard Meyer has written, was a “radical confrontation with both art and feminism,” condemned by the magazine’s editors as “an object of extreme vulgarity” (Lynda Benglis, 63). At the New Museum, the ad was displayed among other self-promotional ephemera such as invitations to shows at Paula Cooper, as well as several videos from the 1970s that likewise demonstrate Benglis’s deployment of eroticism as a liberating force, thereby allowing a more complete picture of Benglis’s attempts to complicate her relationship to feminism and the masculinist art world.
While most of Benglis’s contemporaries have received major surveys in New York museums over the past four decades (or several, in the case of Serra), the scope of Benglis’s career has remained largely obscure to North American viewers (her last U.S. museum show was a 1991 survey at the High Museum in Atlanta). The New Museum, with its dedication to “new art and new ideas,” does not typically survey artists of Benglis’s generation, and the exceptions tend to be artists who have somehow slipped through the cracks (the 2009 survey of Dorothy Iannone is a case in point). Benglis’s various provocations related to gender and art-world conventions—including her lack of interest in establishing a coherent, identifiable authorial style—no doubt account for her ambivalent reception over the past decades; but now that a younger generation of artists has similarly dismantled the strictures of Minimalism and Postminimalism, Benglis’s work seems prescient.
The catalogue has compiled scanned images of articles on Benglis, from clippings from local newspapers like the Dallas Morning News to Artforum features, underlining the importance of these sources in crafting artistic persona as well as the central role of critical discourse for artists of Benglis’s milieu. This presentation of articles in their historic layout, complete with images and advertisements, should become a standard means of anthologizing. The tone can be a bit overly concerned with establishing Benglis’s importance (John Baldessari reassures readers, “I consider Lynda Benglis to be one of the most innovative living sculptors in the United States”). But it is easy to understand this concern given how disproportionately little attention Benglis has received, a situation partly remedied by this major reappraisal.
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, University of Massachusetts, Lowell
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