Still Powerful After All These Years

Lynda Benglis is a Material Girl, employing mediums to suit her message, whether it's latex, wax, glass, fabric, collage, or video. You might have seen her poured latex floor pieces? Or perhaps her sculptural wax paintings? Or her metal wall sculptures cast from pleated fabric?

Benglis also has a strong political streak, and her early work questioned gender roles. Her video of two women making out, included in
The Female Gaze, is tame by today's standards, but back then it was transgressive.

And then there was the giant dildo.

In 1974 a lean and buff Benglis had herself photographed wearing nothing but sunglasses, holding a giant latex phallus between her thighs. The photograph was meant to be part of an Artforum feature on the artist in November that year, but the editor John Coplans (who, excuse me, spent a good portion of his career photographing and exhibiting his own little weenie) and a few of the editors, balked. Benglis and her then dealer, Paula Cooper, placed it as an ad in the same issue. Touche.

Power grab: Lynda Benglis in the November 1974 issue of Artforum


Benglis's now iconic image was the keystone of a recent show at Susan Inglett Gallery, along with one of Robert Morris, bare chested and wrapped with chains, right. The show, Lynda Benglis/Robert Morris: 1973-1974, examined the two images and the art world's strong reaction to them, especially Benglis's. The two artists were friends, and the thesis of the exhibition is that each artist's transgressions help informed the other's.

We, of course, have 35 years of objectivity in reconsidering these images: He was in chains; she could not be more unfettered.

Robert Morris in a 1974 poster for his exhibition at Castelli-Sonnabend Gallery

I remember the ad when it came out. I was horrified and thrilled at the same time. It was a feminist act. And the issue is still relevant. A man with fake breasts would never have caused the same brouhaha. But a woman with a penis? She was assuming power, baby. And her power was the biggest on the block.


Letter to the editor: Can you read it?

"It's about time 'Artforum' had an identity crisis. Lynda Benglis has created some problems. She got a lot more than $2000 worth of advertising, tested the limits of 'good taste' and, in my humble opinion, made the strongest feminist statement you've ever printed."

Pages from the Artform article on Benglis. The ad appeared up front; this article by Robert Pincus-Witten was in the "well" where the features are

Read more:
. Press release from Susan Inglett Gallery
. Roberta Smith's July 24
review in the New York Times
See more:
. Benglis's work at the Cheim & Read Gallery



Martin said...

so pissed i missed this show.

Joanne Mattera said...

I'll bet some of that documentation is still at the gallery.

Also, did you notice that the cost of an ad then was $2000? It's probably four times that now.

S.A. said...

Great post Joanne! I remember well when that ad came out -- it was a huge moment for Benglis (no pun intended). But politics aside -- if that's possible -- Benglis has been a major artist for at least 30 years, consistently making some of the most beautiful and charged objects out there. It's time for a big museum retrospective!....P.S.1?

Admin said...

To be fair, I think Coplans' photographic body of work deserves a fair amount more credit than the summary "spent a good portion of his career photographing and exhibiting his own little weenie." Countering "the notion of the male gaze" is more than a "curatorial conceit," but was and is a fundamental conceptual basis for much art made in the 70's and early 80's. So, I wonder if Coplans' work counters the "Youth Gaze" or the "Old Men Make My Eyeballs Hurt Gaze" by offering really the first frank and beautifully compelling images of an aging male body. And much of that body of work has no weenie in it.

Joanne Mattera said...

Chris, you know I try to live up to my tagline: Guaranteed biased, myopic, incomplete and journalistically suspect.

You are right that Coplans was brave to offer images of the aging male body. (One of my favorite images is of a slightly hairy back--possibly his own--with two fists at the shoulders. At first glance it's grotesque, and then it's funny, then untimately it's simply a different way of seeing forms that happen to be different body parts in an unlikely conjunction.)

BUT, BUT, BUT, it was hypocritical of him to have rejected an image of a penis on one person while producing plenty on another (himself). And, since he was apparently outraged by the image, is was equally hypocrital of him to have accepted the image as an ad but not as an editorial image.

Hylla said...

I'm still chuckling at Martin's comment.

marc said...

On occasion I have students(usually in their early 20's) whose use of materials and color invites comparisons to and clues from Lynda Benglis' pieces. My first question is "Do you know who Lynda Benglis is?". The typical response is "no". Then it gets way tricky for me. After I go into my take on why Benglis is someone to look up, I do a clumsy description of google/artforum hits. Oh well, I have gotten no calls from irate parents or deans, so far.

Admin said...

Joanne, I don't think it's so black and white.

First, to call Coplans hypocritical for an (alleged) editorial decision in 1974 in light of photographs he started making in 1980 is a retroactive judgment- they're not really connected.

Second, from an John Coplans interview, 1975 Apr. 4 - 1977 Aug. 4, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution:

JOHN COPLANS: Oh yes. But I mean that I was sensitive enough to realize that the situation was an impossible situation. Museum shows were decreasing. There was a great decrease in energy. Money difficulties developed. And that we needed to actually overhaul the magazine in some way or another. The situation was brought to a head I think when I had a personal row with Robert Pincus-Witten, who was a close friend, with Robert Pincus-Witten on the one hand and with the editors on the other hand, who wrote a letter impugning me for the publication of the Linda Benglis ad. Now the circumstances of the Linda Benglis ad were again a set of circumstances. I had sent it to Charles Cowles to decide as publisher whether we should advertise it or not.

PAUL CUMMINGS: Who submitted it? The agency or did she make it up herself?

JOHN COPLANS: No, she came along. Pincus Witten had written an article on her and she wanted to make this part of the article, a special piece for the magazine. As you are probably aware, it was a kind of dialog between her and Robert Morris with whom she had been very close at one time, in response to Morris' sado-mascochistic macho image of himself with chains and a German helmet.

PAUL CUMMINGS: And a leather jacket.

JOHN COPLANS: And a leather jacket. And she made a feminine response.

PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, I see. That's right.

JOHN COPLANS: She made a feminine response, ostensible in my mind at least, is the fact that women could also be startlingly macho if they cared to be. So there was this image of her with a double-ended rubber penis stuffed actually in her vagina and she was oiled, and she wanted this in the article. I wanted no part of it in the article because we controlled independently what goes into the articles and the illustrations. Finally she came around to the idea of could she have an ad. I said, well, I'm not against it. It is not my decision. It is Charles Cowles' decision. He, I must admit in all fairness, bent himself in all directions realizing that if he refused the ad, he would be regarded by the art world as somewhat cynical and not the open-ended kind of man in admiration of modern art that he was claiming to be. On the other hand, he was very reasonably torn by what his family would say, his mother and his sister, if they saw such an ad in Artforum. After all, they were very proud of the magazine and he simply didn't know what to do. He kept appealing to me and I kept saying, you have to make the decision. Finally he said, I will go with it. And I sent it down to the printers and they refused to print it.

PAUL CUMMINGS: Your are kidding?

JOHN COPLANS: No, they refused to print it. He said, fine, that's killed it. That is one relief. I can now tell the art world that the printers wouldn't print it. I said, now this becomes an editorial matter. He said, in what sense is it an editorial matter? I said, we cannot work with a firm of printers who are censors, who decide what can and what cannot go in a magazine, editorially or from the point of view of ads. There was nothing illegal about the ad and I wrote to the printers and said we have a contract with you, an annual contract for us to produce the magazine and for you to print it.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks for this. Interesting back story to the image. I'm on the road so will keep my response short but I will get back to it.

Admin said...

Hi Joanne- not wanting to be argumentative but I was sure there is more to the story than what a lot of people think; I recalled reading somewhere a bit of Coplans' version of the story. I'm not sure if this Archives of American Art is the thing I read before- he doesn't fully explain the whole situation but says enough to suggest that there were other complications. From what I gather, Artforum under Coplans had a policy- the editors choose the images, much as in other forms of journalism editors choose accompanying photos, titles, and captions, not the writer of the article. So he seems to suggest that rejecting Benglis' photo had more to do with Artforum's photo selection policy, not an outright rejection of the photo. And he did not object to the photo- rather, it was not fully germane to the article Benglis hoped it would accompany, and Coplan did not reject it for an ad. Anyway, that's how he seems to explains it. And if he's correct, then it's unfortunate that an incorrect version of the story continues to circulate.

BTW, I've used the Smithsonian archives a bit over the years, and they are terrific- how about a long interview with Anne Truitt: