Summary of Lynda Benglis
Though best-described as a sculptor, Lynda Benglis is impossible to align with a single movement or medium. In 1968, she began pouring latex or polyurethane foam onto the floor of her studio and into the corners. The resulting forms were both painterly and sculptural. By the 1970s she was casting these works in bronze and incorporating other metals in unusual combinations. Furious when her innovations were ignored by the New York art world, she posed for an outrageous advertisement for an upcoming exhibition of her work, oiled up, wearing nothing but sunglasses, and brandishing an enormous dildo. This infamous act of protest, a deservedly unforgettable moment in Feminist art history, made Benglis famous but failed to call attention to the artist's superb sculptures. Only over the past decade has Benglis begun to receive recognition as a major contributor to late-20th- and 21st-century art.
- Benglis was the first artist to make sculptures out of paint, eliminating the boundary between painting and sculpture - two traditionally separate art forms.
- Benglis's work is a continuation of the Abstract Expressionist tradition of dripping and pouring pigment from above. She takes the process one step further, however, eliminating the canvas and pouring directly onto the floor, allowing the walls and corners to shape the piece.
- In her use of candy colors, glitter and other craft materials, she distanced herself from the serious, brooding color and macho materials used by her contemporaries. In doing so, she sought to question traditional gendered distinctions in art, above all the opposition between art and craft.
- Her willingness to use her own body in art films and play stereotypically feminine roles (her pornstaresque appearance in Artforum in 1974, for example) paved the way for Cindy Sherman and other artists who specialize in experimental role play, and ushered in a new era in self-portraiture.
Important Art by Lynda Benglis
This work is around 30ft long and dates from a breakthrough period in Benglis's career. The artist poured latex rubber pigment in brightly-colored hues onto the floor of her studio. Unlike conventional oil or acrylic paint, the rubber remained in the shape of the artist's spill, preserving her gesture, and needed no canvas. It was a self-sufficient artwork. As Susan Richmond points out, "each pour was the product of a complex choreography, necessitating a balance of spontaneity and precision, not to mention physical endurance, as the artist frequently wielded five-gallon cans of the pigmented medium." The resulting form is sculptural; it is meant to be exhibited on the floor, and takes up a significant portion of the space in which the work is exhibited. For feminist scholar and art historian Amelia Jones, Fallen Painting is about "the depravity of the fallen woman", and resembles a "prone victim of phallic male desire."
Pigmented Latex Rubber - Albright-Knox Art Gallery, New York
Lynda Benglis made several video pieces in the 1970s, when she was working at the University of Rochester and could use the school's equipment. Now is the most well-known of these works, and made a significant impact on the field of video art and critical theory. The screen shows the artist standing in front of a monitor, viewing another recording of herself inside it. These dual versions of the artist talk throughout the film, while the artist's voice can be heard in an additional voiceover. Throughout the film, these three different versions of the artist shout instructions and questions, such as: "now!", "now?", "start recording", and "do you wish to direct me?" The theme of auto-eroticism is palpable. At one point Benglis French-kisses her double inside the monitor. The overall effect is disorienting, yet sensuous, beckoning the viewer into the self-referential world of the video. It was the inspiration for Rosalind Krauss' seminal essay on video art, 'Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism.' (1976) As Krauss acknowledged, Benglis had broken new ground in examining how the artist's voice and image might act as subject, object, and raw material for the artwork.
Video (Color, Sound) - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
One of a series of works named after letters of the Greek alphabet, Psi is a sculptural knot made from various materials. Its twisting shapes are heavily reminiscent of organs or intestines. The momentum inherent in its never-ending form takes the eye on an endless journey. Like Now (1973), Benglis' film of the same year, it is self-referential, self-contained, and apparently infinite. Here the use of glitter, a distinctly "girlish" material, invites the viewer to consider the work from a gendered perspective, but is simultaneously confrontational about why the viewer makes assumptions about the gendering of the material in the first place.
Aluminum, cotton bunting, plaster, silver paint, enamel, and "sparkles" - Cheim and Read Gallery, New York
After being refused editorial space in Artforum, an eminent art magazine, the enraged Benglis paid for an advertisement that consisted of a full-page photograph of herself, nude except sunglasses, and masturbating with an oversized double-ended dildo. It was the ultimate F--- you to the art world, and one that became so famous it has often eclipsed the rest of her art.
The advertisement was in part a response to an earlier ad by her friend, Robert Morris, who featured an equally sensational image: himself, naked from the waist up, bound in S&M regalia. Both images were intended to highlight the absurdity of the sort of hyper-masculinity that dominated the art world. As Richard Meyer has put it, what was particularly shocking about the image was "its refusal to fall comfortably into either a feminist critique of pornography or a pornographic critique of feminism". The artist's active, even hostile stance, cropped hair, and of course, her penis, do not conform to the conventional guidelines of heterosexual eroticism, some feminists felt she was too willing to make a joke out of deep divisions in the art world, capitalizing on the attractiveness of her own spectacular body.
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, library collection
This work, cast in lead in 1975, was based on an earlier composition created in Benglis' studio. In the earlier sculpture, she used her signature technique: pouring polyurethane into the corner of her studio, and allowing the effects of gravity to shape the slowly hardening substance, forming its sloping, rounded edges. The bottom and two sides are essentially a cast of the space created by the walls and floor.
In seeking to minimize her control over the work, her process is aligned with that of action painters (Pollock, for example, or Helen Frankenthaler, who put their canvases directly on the floor and dripped or poured the paint directly over it). Like the Abstract Expressionists, she welcomed the unpredictability of this process. She takes the process a step further, making a sculpture out of paint.
The work also challenges our preconceived notions about materials. Lead is characteristically hard and heavy, properties that are at odds with the malleability of the polyurethane sculpture on which this is based. Critic and curator Elisabeth Lebovici argues that Benglis constantly pursues an "extraordinary undermining operation" in her works. In recasting this work in lead, she undermined her own earlier use of materials, calling into question the nature of hard and soft, and alerting us to the changing nature of her process.
Lead - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
In the 1980s Benglis continued to work with metal, but added wire, zinc, corrugated aluminium and other lighter materials that could be folded, bent, or twisted. These lighter, wall-mounted pieces resemble knots or folded ribbons, a significant departure from her earthbound pieces. Eridanus, a knot-like form, hovers over the surface of the wall with the apparent lightness of a paper flower. In her choice and manipulation of materials, she remained focused on the tension between masculine and feminine characteristics, using metal (a traditionally masculine substance) to evoke ribbon, associated with frilly femininity. Here as in Psi, Greek culture is a source of inspiration - Eridanus is a mythological river.
Bronze, zinc, copper, aluminum, wire - National Museum of Women in the Arts
Biography of Lynda Benglis
The eldest of five children, Lynda Benglis was born into a Greek-American family and raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her mother was the daughter of a preacher from Mississippi. Her father ran a business selling building materials, an early influence on her work: "I'm a real fan of surfaces. My father ... had samples of colors and plastics and laminates and woods in his car. I was always very interested."
In 1964, she received a BFA from Newcomb College, New Orleans, and she subsequently became a teacher at Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. At this time she married her first husband, art historian Michael Kampen, whom she describes as "the only good-looking graduate-school guy at a girls' school." The marriage lasted only a matter of months and ended with Benglis throwing a brick at his car. Very soon afterward she moved to New York, where she continues to live and work.
Benglis went to study painting under abstract artist Reuben Tam at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. It was here that she met Gordon Hart, a Scottish painter whom she would later marry. She would later say that she only married Hart to help him avoid the draft. During her time at art school, she met budding artists Frank Stella, Bridget Riley, and Barnett Newman.
Despite her training in painting and her frequent use of paint as a material in her work, she soon moved away from a traditional canvas-based approach and started to make a series of sculptural works in various media. Her work was first exhibited at the influential Bykert Gallery in New York in 1968, where she had been working as an assistant to the gallery's owner, Klaus Kertess. Her first solo show was exhibited by the Paula Cooper Gallery, the first gallery to open in New York's SoHo district. Paula Cooper subsequently represented her for several years.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Benglis' experimentations with a range of media and art forms began to receive widespread notice. She says of herself, "I think I thrived in the New York scene. When I arrived pop art was peaking and pop art had a lot of irony and took on a kind of irony about the artists themselves, they were not shy ... they mocked the material which is art. So when I was in the art world, at a very young age, I saw that I didn't want to think just one way. That I wanted to ask many questions within the context of the materials that I use, and I continue to do that." She freed paint from canvas, pouring it directly onto the floor. In 1970, Life magazine ran a double-page spread on her which compared her process to that of Jackson Pollock, cementing her growing reputation.
Pop art and Minimalism were beginning to dominate the art scene. Among the older and more established artists who were supportive of her work, were the Minimalist Carl Andre and Andy Warhol. Warhol asked her to appear naked in one of his films. She refused. Benglis was among the women artists who noticed a male hegemony that was defining artistic practice, and permitting the use of certain materials considered masculine (stone, bricks, clay, steel, paint, etc.) while forbidding others. She sought to undermine this through her alternative use of materials that ran against the grain, and through her presentation of herself as a work of art.
In spite of this, Benglis and her work have a complex relationship with feminism. She is the author of one of the most controversial images in the history of feminist art. When Robert Morris, an artist with whom she had worked collaboratively and in dialogue, placed an advertisement in Artforum magazine depicting himself in S&M gear, she soon replied with her own advertisement in the magazine in November 1974. She filled the spread with a confrontational image of herself wearing nothing but a pair of sunglasses and holding an oversized dildo (Robert Morris helped her pick it out). The image continues to spark conversation on gender bias in the art world; in the 1970s, it provoked a range of reactions from humor to outrage, and raised questions about persistent sexism in New York art circles, the role of pornography in contemporary life, and what it meant to be a feminist. To some, the image was a brave protest against the unequal treatment of women. To others, the artist's hyper-sexualized nudity perpetuated the very problem she sought to confront. The image itself provided no easy answers or helpful solutions.
Despite being predominantly based in New York, she also traveled the world, spending time at her grandparents' house on the Greek island of Megisti, which she now owns. She also became acquainted with New Mexico, and has two studios in the desert outside Santa Fe. She continues to be a keen traveler, saying that "travel is when I can relax."
In 1979, she traveled to Ahmedabad, India, where she was the artist-in-residence for a well-known family who lived in a door-less house designed by Le Corbusier. Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Morris had both previously held the position, and had recommended her. It was on this trip that she met her life partner Anand Sarabhai, her host's son. Sarabhai died in 2003, an event which affected her and her work deeply. Talking about some of her mid-2000s ceramic sculptures, she says "there was a lot of black in the beginning because I lost my partner of over 30 years, Anand Sarabhai."
Benglis continues to practice as an artist today, and the variety of her work is testament to the current pluralism of artistic styles which was born in the 1970s, and which she herself helped to create. Elisabeth Lebovici argues that Benglis wants to avoid being pigeon-holed, and consequently pursues "an extraordinary undermining operation", both of her own work and of dominant trends in whatever period she is working in. This creative freedom has allowed her to create such recent works as her 2013 Jicarilla series in semi-glazed ceramics and Pi Tangerine in 2009, a ball of urethane dyed with orange pigment.
The Legacy of Lynda Benglis
Until recently, Lynda Benglis' work received relatively little critical notice and surprisingly few large solo exhibitions. In recent years, however, several notable institutions have exhibited her work. Retrospectives have been held at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (2009), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2011) and the Hepworth Wakefield, West Yorkshire (2015). Her work has also been included in the seminal 2007 exhibition, "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" at MOCA, Los Angeles.
Her influence on a younger generation of artists is also becoming more evident and is now fairly well documented. For example, the photographer Cindy Sherman has claimed that seeing Benglis' Artforum advertisement constituted "one of the most pivotal moments of my career." As Laura Hoptman, a curator at MoMA puts it, "anybody who is using that bodily biomorphism is Benglis. Anybody who is being very out with her sexuality is Benglis."
Influences and Connections
- Pop Art
- Performance Art
- Abstract Expressionism
- Process Art
- Cindy Sherman
- John Baldessari
- Matthew Barney
- Roxy Paine
Useful Resources on Lynda Benglis
- Lynda Benglis: Beyond ProcessOur PickBy Susan Richmond
- Lynda BenglisBy Dave Hickey and Elisabeth Lebovici