Lynda Benglis at MOCA: Conceptual Art Meets Dildoes (NSFW)
Courtesy the artist and Cheim & Read, © Lynda Benglis, DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2009 Lynda Benglis, Fling, Dribble, and Drip, February 27, 1970, Life Magazine
In 1974, Lynda Benglis ran an advertisement in Artforum that caused five editors to protest and pack up: she photographed herself naked, taught and oiled, defiantly wielding a giant dildo over a full-page spread.
Benglis was 33 then, enjoying the rush of an artistic career that walked the line between minimalism and feminism, and between playfulness and intellectualism. Dubbed "the new Pollock" by Life Magazine in 1970, Benglis confronted the legacy of abstract expressionism early on in her career, and currently stands alone as a creator of contemporary works that explore the vitality of the body.
The first museum retrospective of her work in over twenty years opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Friday, and testifies to Benglis' deep influence on contemporary art that is still largely unexplored.
Though Benglis is best-known for her bold and often garish pieces from the '60s and '70s, her artistic output shows no signs of slowing down as she creates arresting works that blur the boundaries between the pictorial and the sculptural. She's no less of an outspoken character at 70 than she was in her youth, and requested that all guests at her MOCA opening wear bright colors. Benglis hasn't lost her charisma or her sense of daring, either: she showed up with two pairs of glasses (sun and reading) perched on top of her head, sporting cherry-pink lips, a hot pink bag and silver shoes.
Her retrospective is part of a traveling exhibit that has made its rounds through Dublin, Dijon, RISD's Museum of Art and New York's New Museum, but this is her first major show on the West Coast in many years. Unknown to most is that Benglis actually has quite a strong relationship to California -- she lived here in the early '70s, was an integral part of the artist community in Venice, and then returned in the spring of 1973 to teach at CalArts. Alma Ruiz, the exhibition curator, says, "What I hope that this exhibition will do is show Lynda's connection to California, which is quite strong. It hasn't been discussed very much."
© 2008 Lynda Benglis, Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York. Lynda Benglis, Artforum Advertisement, 1974
Born in Louisiana in 1941, Benglis first made a name for herself in 1970s New York with her latex pour pieces, which are bright, liquid carpets of spilled color. They're conceived as a bold commentary on Pollock's drip paintings, of course, but they have the signature Benglis touch, emanating an eerie tactility. As the retrospective shows, this quality extends to all of her work, and differentiates Benglis from many of the male minimalists she worked with.
The art in the exhibit does at times feel like a collection of bodies, each waiting for a chance to interact with the viewer. Benglis explains, "I'm most interested in the formal aspects of how we see and how we feel." She characterizes her metallacized knot series from the '70s as a "psychological statement about emotion," and her cast, off-the-wall pour pieces as "dealing with the floating issue that we've all experienced as embryos in our mother's wombs."
Yes, they are libidinal, bodily objects, and Benglis' work is arguably more overtly sexual than that of her male artistic counterparts such as Richard Serra and Robert Morris. In the climate of 1970s New York, she confronted the male-dominated culture head-on. "She made many big, macho pieces in response of the macho culture that she found in New York," Ruiz says.
Courtesy of Beth Rudin DeWoody and Cheim & Read Gallery, New York, © Lynda Benglis, DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2009 Alpha 1, from 1973-74, one of Benglis' powerful knots pieces
But Benglis has never been interested in making an outright feminist statement; she seems more concerned with emphasizing communal responses and triggering the viewer's visceral sensations. Her favorite term for this is "proprioception," which refers to one's own, internal sense of the body.
Certainly, no one who goes to see Phantom can be left unmoved: the 1971 installation, shown in full for the first time since its creation, features five pour pieces that glow a ghostly green under blacklight. It's a room of biomorphic sculptures of indeterminate organisms that go bump in the night.
Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, one element: collection of Elizabeth Goetz, courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York, image courtesy New Museum, New York, photo by Benoit Pailley, © Lynda Benglis, DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2009 Lynda Benglis' Phantom, 1971
Like her abstract pieces, with their weird and wonderful energy, Benglis' more sexual work is a playful but arresting confrontation with expectations. Her Artforum advertisement was inspired by a picture taken of Benglis by Annie Liebovitz for a gallery invitation, in which Benglis, pants down and butt out (replete with tan line), gazed provocatively over her shoulder.
"Later, a woman walked into the Paula Cooper show and said, 'Who did that to her?'" Benglis remembers. "I realized that this was a mistake in terms of this kind of rhetoric about object. I am my own object, so it seemed to me that I was making my own suggestion with playfulness. So I decided, 'Turn around, show what's on the other side, give it to them.'"
That's when Benglis decided to shoot herself nude, wielding a large dildo in her right hand -- definitely surprising viewers in their expectation of what was on the other side. "I studied pornography, I saw what they had been doing, and it was always a staged situation, and it wasn't confrontational. I decided I had to go further with the idea of the political and beg the question, and also confront a situation where I was really representing both sexes. It's a humanist statement," she adds. So there you have it: humanism and dildoes are linked, after all.