A Little Late: Lynda Benglis at the New Museum


Lynda Benglis at the New Museum, February-June 2011
Lobby Gallery: Contraband, 1969, pigmented latex, 116.25 x 393.33 x 3 inches
Whitney Museum of American Art purchase, with funds from the Painting Sculpture Committee and partial gift of John Cheim and Howard Read, 2008
(c) Lynda Benglis. DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2009

Really, I didn’t mean to wait until the show was over (June 16), but until I get that clone I’ve ordered, I just can’t do it all—or do it all on time, anyway. So today we take a look at Lynda Benglis, the artist’s recent retrospective at the New Museum.

Represented by four decades of sculpture and dimensional painting (along with some Super-8 films, work on paper and, yes, the infamous double dildo), Lynda Benglis reminds us that a range of seemingly incongruous concepts like formal, visceral, erotic, political, playful, beautiful and messy could come from the same artist--indeed, possibly be shoehorned into one work. Not only that, her range of ideas is matched only by her expansive embrace of materials: latex,  polyurethane foam, phorphorescent pigments, beeswax, plastic, glass, and cast bronze, lead and aluminum.

Benglis is an artist for whom process is integral. In several early works she poured rivers of pigmented latex onto the floor. Like her more-or-less contemporary, Eva Hesse, those latex pieces have not withstood the passage of time; what were once vibrant and supple rivers of color are now yellowed and brittle floor sculptures. But much of the work looks great, pristine even, especially the poured cascades of pigmented polyurethane, or the built-up layers of beeswax on long, tongue-like forms.
Did Benglis redefine sculpture? I don't know. But she certainly seems to have approached it fearlessly. And idiosyncratically. No matter what the form or substance, when you see it, you know it's hers.

If you want to see more, there's a catalog. Benglis is represented by Cheim & Read Gallery (in fact, many of the pieces on view in this exhibition I first saw at the gallery).

Here’s a look at the show, images courtesy of the New Museum, as no photgraphy was allowed. 

Material heaven: Installation view of Lynda Benglis, second-floor gallery

Karen, 1972, wax on wood, 36 x 5 x 3 inches
Collection of Howard Read
(c) Lynda Benglis. DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2009

Detail below  

Cocoon, 1971, wax on wood, 35 x 5 x 5 inches
Courtesy George and Nancy Rosenfeld
(c) Lynda Benglis. DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2009

Phantom, 1971, polyurethane foam with phosphorescent pigments; five elements approximately 8.5 x 35 x 8 feet
One element Collection of Elizabeth Goetz
Courtesy of Cheim & Read Gallery, New York
(c) Lynda Benglis. DACS,  London/VAGA, New York 2009

This phosphorescent work was certainly the most dramatic. In a darkened room, the five forms emanated an unearthly aura, like giant glow-in-the-dark Jesuses gone horrifyingly wrong. And I mean that in a good way. Occasionally the lights came up to "recharge" the phosphorescence, and then blackness again, just you, a handful of strangers, all quiet, and those five forms.

Installation with Quartered Meteor, left, 1969-75, lead, 57.5 x 65.5 x 64.25 inches; 
Sparkle Knot V on back wall, full view below

Sparkle Knot V, 1972; acrylic paint and sparkles on plaster, cotton bunting and aluminum screen; 42 x 25 x 13 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Cheim & Read Gallery, New York
(c) Lynda Benglis. DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2009 

Eat Meat, 1973, bronze, 24 x 80 x 54 inches
Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery and Cheim & Read Gallery, New York
(c) Lynda Benglis. DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2009

Wing, 1970, cast aluminum, 67 x 59.25 x 60 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Cheim & Read Gallery
(c) Lynda Benglis. DACS,  London/VAGA, New York 2009 

Smile, 1974, cast lead (maybe tin?), 15x5 x 6.5 x 2.25 inches
Collection Paul Walter
(c) Lynda Benglis. DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2009   

Female Sensibility, 1973, video
Courtesy of the artist and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York
(c) Lynda Benglis. DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2009

What I love about Benglis's metal dildo sculpture and her kissing women (which is why I paired them here) is how transgressive they were at the time. Male artists were enjoying their unquestioned hegemonic hold on the art world, and Benglis's hold on a big dick really shook things up.  More here, which contains additional links.

JM photo from Still Powerful After All These Years, a report on a Lynda Benglis/Robert Morris show at Susan Inglett Gallery. (This framed spread from ArtForum was also in the NuMu show.)

Installation with Minos, 1978; gesso, gold leaf, and oil-based sizing on chickenwire, cotton bunting and plaster; 63 x 16.5 x 9 inches
Rose and Charles Gibbs

More Benglis coming up later this week in Four Sculptors at the Lesley Heller Workspace on the LES (alas, also over).


Nancy Natale said...

Thanks for this post, Joanne. I have been aware of Lynda Benglis for her wax wall sculptures, poured forms and the (in)famous ad, but her work seems to have been presented in an incohesive way prior to this show at the New Museum. Maybe that's just what I know about it or maybe her work is about experimentation with materials and forms so that it seems a bit scattered, to me at least.

Although I admire her "balls" in posing for and running the famous ad, that is what she will be remembered for, rather than her work. Is that a good thing, I have to ask myself at this stage of my life. Not that I'm planning a similar ad myself - god forbid - but wouldn't an artist want to be remembered for her work? On the other hand, at least she will be remembered in the annals of art history at all even if just for her audacity.

I guess the point I'm making is that it's not like the photo was part of a body of work itself (unless there was more in the interchange with Robert Morris that I don't know about), like the Mapplethorpe photos of men and their parts or the John Coplans photos.

It's not that I object to the photo or her intention to shake things up and be transgressive of the norms of the times, it's just that her whole career will be that one photo. After that, she might as well have hung it up (no pun intended). It's like Hedda Sterne with the Irascibles photo: she didn't exist outside of it as far as history was concerned.

I think the only way that Lynda Benglis could have stopped this from happening is if she went on to do more of it so that the photo lost its uniqueness. I have never seen any other work that had to do with her body. The cast double dildo and the lesbianic video are not about her personal self in the same way as the ad.

I think it would have been great if she had done a series of herself in transgressive poses at the time (when she had such a body) because surely there is and was more to it than posing with a double-headed dildo.

Just thinkin' about what we leave behind and the mark we make on the world as women and artists.

(The text that Chris Ashley quoted in the comments of your previous post from the Smithsonian records about publishing the ad were very interesting, BTW. There is always so much more to the story than first appears.)

Joanne Mattera said...


Thanks for taking the time to write a long and reasoned comment. To be honest, I disagree with you.

Benglis's whole career will not be remembered for that one picture. For one thing, the picture, and the action, are very much a part of the early Seventies, when women were using their bodies in a defiant way. (Hannah Wilke left a whole body of work, so to speak, with her nude self, and her labia sculptures, and then, in the early 90's bravely documented herself when she was bloated and dying of cancer in, in a show at Ronald Feldman called "Intravenus." )

Anyway, Benglis has done so much beyond the dildo picture, which I hope I made clear. Indeed, the ArtForum ad and other print documentation of her career were in a small section of the museum, and the image check list refers to them as "Ephemera."

Benglis's oeuvre, to me, is all about the ways she has used materials to make forms. Cheim & Read has shown her work frequently, in the context of materiality(there was a great show with Louise Burgeois in 2007, two "material girls" of different generations), feminism ("The Female Gaze") and a scupture survey in 2004 that was a precursor to the NuMu show.

Heres Benglis's exhibition history at Cheim & Read:

Nancy Natale said...

Thanks for giving me the Cheim & Read website, Joanne. I looked at all the exhibitions on the list. My favorite, of course, was the Benglis and Bourgeois show. Their work was fabulous together. Benglis' work also looked great in the Abstractions show. I wish I had seen that.

OK, so I was going way out there, but in today's three-second ADHD attention span, one image is about all you get.

annell4 said...

Thank you so much. I always learn so much from your posts. I have also known of Lindy Benglis for many years, it is good to see a lot of her work.

kim matthews said...

It's interesting to hear Nancy's perspective on the ArtForum ad and its potential effect on others' perceptions. I knew of Benglis' work long before I found out she was the dildo girl in the ad. It would never occur to me that that's how others would think of her--to me she's a sculptor and a feminist, not a "feminist sculptor." But then again, I was in kindergarten when this photo was published.

Matt Morris said...

Joanne, do you understand Lynda's technique with those early, ridged wax paintings? They call to mind Martin Kline's work, too. In both cases, I have trouble telling if these were made very actively, with the forms that emerge being incidental accumulations, or if there is more crafting and controlling going on.

During one show at Galerie Lelong several years ago, when Petah Coyne was exhibiting a number of wall-like pieces, she commented that she and her team were not above carving and sculpting what look like straightforward drips across the surface.

Just the question about control with these media.