BY Hermione Hoby in Features | 26 FEB 20
Featured in
Issue 209

Lynda Benglis Pours One Out

As major exhibitions at Nasher Sculpture Center, National Gallery of Art and the Museum of Cycladic Art honour the iconoclastic sculptor, novelist Hermione Hoby reflects on her six-decade career

BY Hermione Hoby in Features | 26 FEB 20

The beach may have been in Italy or France, and I may have been four or five years old, but the tactile fact I remember distinctly is this: there was black sand, made larvic and gloopy by the tide, and it could be scooped up between cupped hands, then dripped out of the crevice between palms, to solidify, instantly, into globular rivulets where it fell. If you kept doing this, allowing layers of oozing matter to fall into strange, drippy heaps, you could form biomorphic mini-monuments. The whole thing was supremely satisfying. That afternoon, whenever and wherever it was, I couldn’t stop: I made a whole metropolis of those weird sandcastles along the shore.

This is the memory that comes back to me when I think of the forms for which 78-year-old American artist Lynda Benglis is most famous. It’s not just that her large, poured sculptures in wax, latex, polyurethane and metal – works she calls ‘frozen gestures’ – resemble these childhood sandcastles. (They do.) The more resonant association is a non-visual one: namely, that her work tends to thrum with the same unalloyed pleasure in materiality most of us only feel as small children armed with fistfuls of gloop; the joy of touching things, forming them into new shapes and, in so doing, having our bodily materiality reaffirmed.

Lynda Benglis, Phantom, 1971, phosphorescent pigmented polyurethane foam,  2.4 × 10.6 × 2.4 m. Courtesy: © Lynda Benglis, Thomas Dane Gallery, London, Cheim & Read, New York, Pace Gallery, New York, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, and DACS, London; photograph: Henry Groskinsky

‘Essentially, I repeat ideas of nature and I process them and interpret them,’ Benglis said in a short documentary produced by Art21 in 2015. ‘I realized what we learn to do is repress our titillations, our feelings about what we see, and we call it taste.’ Fuck taste, in other words. Hence her spumous wall pieces that glow in the dark like radioactive spillages – 1971’s Phantom, for example, in which phosphorescent pigments are combined with polyurethane. Or her ongoing series of ‘Sparkle Knots’, smaller-scale sculptures made with glitter. (Glitter! Those minimalists must have clutched their pearls.) Benglis makes things for one reason, as she said in that same documentary: ‘Because I’m curious. It’s exciting for me to feel that same excitement I felt as a kid.’

Benglis has yoked a childlike vision – that numinous, instinctual talent for colour and form – to a deep, interrogative engagement with art history. In so doing, she has proved one of the most ground-breaking artists of her generation. Her famous ‘Fallen Paintings’ of the late 1960s, in which paint seems to have slipped from the bounds of the canvas and taken three-dimensional form on the floor, are both rebuke and homage to abstract expressionism; a one-upwomanship of Jackson Pollock’s celebrated drip technique, they merge wry wit with bold aesthetic delight. Benglis was a pioneer in the realm of video art, too, with performance-based works like Female Sensibility (1973), in which she kisses her friend Marilyn Lenkowsky, and Now (1973), in which she interacts with a pre-recorded image of herself and poses questions like: ‘Do you wish to direct me?’ These works, combined with the early 1970s photographs she referred to as ‘Sexual Mockeries’ (self-portraits featuring a pastiche of porn and pin-up iconography), have cast her as a feminist lodestar.

Lynda Benglis, ETA, 1972, aluminium wire mesh, cotton bunting, plaster, acrylic, sparkles, 102 × 46 × 36 cm. Courtesy: © Lynda Benglis, The Hepworth Wakefield and DACS, London; photograph: Nick Singleton

Surveying her career, however, there appear to be two distinct artists at work. There is Benglis the sculptor, an artist delighting in pure abstractions of colour, shape and form, whose works provoke sheer pleasure – the way a child might love the sight of green slime or squished berries. Then, there is Benglis the provocateur, a statement-maker hyperliterate in the charged signifiers of gender and power. This is the auteur of the notorious 1974 Artforum advertisement, that cultural touchstone of a photograph, in which Benglis, wearing only white-rimmed cat-eye sunglasses, oiled and tanned but for the white triangular marks of a bikini, full-bushed, hips thrust, appears to penetrate herself with a sizeable double-ended dildo. In 2019, T Magazine anointed it as one of the 25 works of art that ‘define the contemporary age’. Cindy Sherman, encountering the piece in her early 20s, called it: ‘One of the pivotal moments of my career.’ What connects these two Benglises – the one working in the realm of abstraction, the other overtly political? It comes down to the artist’s need to affirm herself as both a physical being in a physical world and as a woman and an artist in a sexually hypocritical and censorious profession.

I meet Benglis in New York on a very cold day at the end of the year, when the whole city seems both terminally exhausted and jangled with the pre-holiday rush. Reaching this point has involved a sort of madness. First, we were to convene in Athens or Naples, where retrospectives of Benglis’s work had recently opened at the Museum of Cycladic Art and Thomas Dane Gallery, respectively. Flights are booked, but plans are changed, and it is decided that we will meet, instead, at Benglis’s New York home. (When she’s not there, she’s in Ahmedabad, Kastellorizo or Santa Fe.) Steps away from the subway entrance, on my way to her place in SoHo, my phone rings. It’s her studio manager, calling to rearrange for tomorrow. The next day, in the same spot, my phone rings again. It’s her studio manager again: ‘I have Lynda on the line.’ I panic, thinking there’s been some misunderstanding. Now, Benglis is in my ear, announcing that she’s hungry – have I eaten, could I bring her some soup? Her studio manager, still on the call, interrupts, with audible weariness, to tell Benglis that she’ll take care of the soup. When I reach her building, I buzz to no answer. Finally, someone else lets me in, but, at her front door, there’s still no answer. When, after some long minutes, the door at last opens, there is Benglis frowning and asking why I didn’t buzz. Her dog, an irrepressible miniature dachshund called Cleo, skitters around the large loft and pees herself with excitement. While Benglis is clearing this up, she dispatches me to answer the door downstairs. It’s an enormous holiday gift delivery from Pace Gallery, who announced their representation of Benglis in January. And so, once again, I find myself standing outside the door to her loft for several minutes, only this time with an unwieldy box beside me.

Lynda Benglis painting the floor with 40 gallons of pigmented latex, University of Rhode Island, 1969. Photograph: Henry Groskinsky

‘Let’s open some champagne! Do you know how to open champagne? Would you like some?’ Benglis offers when we’re finally settled, her tone slightly nasal and deadpan. Spaced along the white wall behind the couch where we sit are three bulging eggs the colour of Jolly Rancher sweets: a deep and vivid green; a syrupy, milky white; and a sour lemony chartreuse. I want to eat them. ‘That’s good,’ Benglis chuckles in a slow huh-huh. She mentions the lollipops she used to buy as a child and says: ‘I’m interested in getting the most out of an image as possible, so that there’s a discovery, always, from the viewer. Certain colours have certain information. Sometimes this piece …’ she cranes to look over her shoulder at her middle egg, the milky one, ‘interestingly enough, disappears. And people have their favourites; this one seems to just grow, the green one.’

We talk about pleasure, a notion art critics seem a little afraid of. ‘Everyday life gives me pleasure,’ she says, with a grin. Sheepishly, I tell her about the sandcastles, and how it seems to me her work is full of one specific pleasure, that of viscosity. ‘Yes, yes,’ she says emphatically. She’s very alert in this moment, staring right at me with her wide eyes. I ask if the making of the thing is as important as the thing made. ‘They’re one and the same,’ she says. ‘The process.’ Then she begins reminiscing about her childhood in Louisiana’s swampy Lake Charles, about building treehouses and playing with sacks of grain feed, the quicksand-like mud that surrounded her high school. ‘I was always interested in how things became material, how my grandmother could go into her kitchen and make these incredible cakes […] For me, everything was plastic. Mutable.’ And so, as a girl: ‘Everything got connected and it allowed me to move about with certainty. I felt the whole world was related – and I continue to feel that way.’

It’s hard to coax Benglis away from the subject of her early childhood; we slip back into it time and again. Her speech seems to follow the same sort of movements as much of her sculpture: one recollection cedes to the next in a continuous flow, particularly once she’s reclined on her sofa among cushions and rugs, with her feet kicked up and her gaze on the ceiling. Perched on the edge of the adjoining sofa with a notebook on my lap, I realize we’ve entered the respective attitudes of analyst and patient. It makes sense that childhood should loom large for an artist like Benglis, in all her disinhibited tactility and curiosity. There is also a small, sore truth lurking in the room: the distant past should come back vividly for a person who, though in good health, is nonetheless in her late 70s. It’s only natural that a mind reflecting on the end should turn back to the beginning.

Lynda Benglis, The Graces, 2003–05, installation view, Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens, 2019, commissioned by NEON. Photograph: Panos Kokkinias

These days, Benglis has been thinking about what might be her ‘gift or legacy to other artists’. She’s considering turning her studios over to future generations of artists after she’s gone: ‘I developed these properties everywhere for my pleasure, but also with the thought that other artists should have the [same] advantage. So, at some point, I’m going to have to decide what should be more permanent and what should be left to how history unveils itself.’

Benglis’s large sculptures and ‘pours’ are hefty in appearance, but they also demand literal muscle. There are terrific pictures of her making The Wave of the World (1984), her first sculpture in bronze, created for the New Orleans World’s Fair. Aloft on the black wings of a sublime and frightening creation, clad in a gas mask to guard against the noxious fumes, she looks like a fantastical demiurge. Better known, however, are the bravura images of Benglis from a 1970 Life magazine spread, which ran under the headline ‘Fling, Dribble and Dip’, showing her lunging with enormous, weighty cans of pigmented liquid latex, mid-pour, as huge, concentric spills of colour spread out around her. These images helped enshrine the central tenet of process art: that the physicality of making is as important as the materiality of what is made.

Benglis clearly always knew what a photograph could do. The invitation for her 1974 show, ‘Metallized Knots’, at Paula Cooper Gallery depicts the artist slouched against her silver Porsche, hair slicked back like a greaser, arm thrown jauntily over the car. The butch strut of the image makes an excellent companion to Joan Didion’s famous, ultra-femme shot from 1988, in which the writer stands in a long dress in front of her Corvette, shoulders hunched, vulnerable and wary, frail arm pulled tightly across her midriff. With her Porsche image, Benglis was playing with the notion of ‘macharina’, a coinage of hers melding ‘macho’ and ‘feminine’. Such ideas became overt – indeed, explicit – that same year, in the photograph for which she’s most famous. Learning that Artforum planned to run a profile on her, Benglis submitted the sunglasses-and-dildo image, asking that they use it to illustrate the piece. When they refused to print it, she paid US$3,000 to run it as an advertisement – for herself and her selfhood – in the magazine.

Lynda Benglis, Hills and Clouds, 2014, cast polyurethane with phosphorescence and stainless steel, 3.1 × 5.5 × 5.5 m. Photograph: Jerry L. Thompson

In 2014, to mark the 40th anniversary of the image’s publication, New York magazine asked 25 female artists to comment. The painter Mickalene Thomas said that, when she first encountered the image 20 years after it was published, she exclaimed: ‘All right, fucking rock on!’ For the 50th anniversary, perhaps someone could compile a book of the letters sent to the then-editor of Artforum, most of which remain unpublished. Professor Martin Ries of Long Island University, for example, offered this critique: ‘The oeuvre of Lynda Benglis is fascinating, her mammary glands are exquisite, and her glutei maximi delightful, but her cock is too big.’

Speaking to New York in 2014, Benglis said of Artforum’s editors: ‘I felt I had set a trap for them. They were out of another century.’ We are now in yet another century, one in which sex positivity is seen as proper, at least for my generation. But try posting Benglis’s advertisement on the infamously nipple-shy Instagram and see how long it lasts. Time and again, prudishness proves itself one of America’s enduring traditions.

After the shoot, Benglis hung the dildo in her shower. (As she once said, with an audible shrug: ‘There was nowhere else to put it.’) Since then, the advert has been, well, the dildo in the room in every interview she’s done. She must be sick of talking about it. ‘Yeah,’ she says, then shoots: ‘What do you think? What does it mean to you?’ I venture that it seems to suggest something different each time I see it – which is probably the mark of a great work of art.

In Susan Krane’s Dual Natures (1991) exhibition catalogue, Benglis stated: ‘My intention was to mock the idea of having to take sexual sides: to be either a male artist or a female […] The idea of a hermaphrodite is ideal because then you employ and embody without contradicting. The condition is a contradiction itself.’ Now, she tells me with finality: ‘I felt very strongly that my thinking was correct. Any time I do anything, usually I’m motivated to do it symbolically,’ she continues. ‘I abstract information and, in this case, it was the particular feminist wave that I felt I was riding. I didn’t want to go to political meetings. I had no particular partner that was disagreeable [for whom] I had to make rules of the household. I wanted to have some humour. I didn’t have an axe to grind and I think I was brought up to be independent. And even if I wasn’t brought up to be independent, I was independent, and I was already making judgements about what I liked in art.’

Lynda Benglis, For Carl Andre, 1970, pigmented polyurethane foam, 1.4 × 1.3 × 1.2 m. Courtesy: © Lynda Benglis, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and DACS, London

The eldest of five kids, Benglis grew up in a house on stilts, living ‘a fantasy American life’. She was ‘kind of a tomgirl’, she says. She studied ceramics at Newcomb College in New Orleans and then, in the summer of 1964, moved to New York where, promptly, she met everyone and was cowed by no one. In 2012, she told the Financial Times that – in palling around with Eva Hesse, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol – she realized: ‘There was nothing to be afraid of in art.’ It takes a glorious repletion of self-assurance to have been the woman to tell Robert Ryman to paint directly onto the wall or to instruct Dan Flavin to ditch the boxes to which he’d been attaching his fluorescent light sculptures. She dedicated one of her earliest foam works, For Carl Andre (1970), to the artist, since he was one of the first to visit her studio. Benglis made explicit her own galvanizing blend of reverence and irreverence in the title of one 1969 piece: Odalisque, Hey, Hey, Frankenthaler, which she produced shortly after seeing a Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective of Helen Frankenthaler’s famous, gentle-hued washes: paint ‘pours’ very different from her own.

Deploying luscious colour during a moment of revered monochrome or making sculptures with glitter at a time of minimalism suggests a contrarian impulse, as does Benglis’s enduring love for the florid and carnivalesque. ‘There’s really no such thing as good or bad taste,’ she shrugs, ‘It’s contextual.’ In 1969, Marcia Tucker curated a show at the New Museum called ‘Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials’, which included austere works by Andre and Richard Serra. Benglis contributed Contraband (1969), a ten-metre ‘pour’ in shameless shades of tangerine, green and cobalt blue, unbound as a bayou oil slick. ‘What I was making was a floor painting and I was very clear about that,’ she recalls. The museum, however, wanted to install the work on an elevated ramp. Benglis withdrew it in protest. ‘I was standing up for my rights and the way I intended the piece to be seen.’ With some sweet vindication, the Whitney acquired the work in 2009.

‘I think artists should know what they’re trying to do and have a purpose in what they’re doing,’ she says. ‘Otherwise you end up making confusion. I felt that I was a product of art history and thinking, and I was definitely glad that I had some philosophy behind me.’ She adds: ‘I think most artists who get recognition get it because they’re not just making objects to be seen, they’re making their beliefs as they feel them. And it’s very important to realize you can feel ideas. That’s why we do art.’

Asked if she feels she’s made a difference to the world, Benglis responds: ‘I’ve made a difference in how we think and feel about texture and sight and what stimulation is, that it’s both texture and colour.’ She has always been, as she puts it, ‘very aware of having some kind of mission in life’. Now: ‘I can say that the energy that I have, and that I will continue to have as long as I’m thinking, needs to be realized. I’m constantly making that effort to be as true to myself and that energy as I can. I don’t want to fail the energy if I have it. That’s all.’ 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 209 with the headline ‘Lynda Benglis Pours One Out’.

Main Image: Lynda Benglis, Baby Contraband (detail), 1969, pigmented latex, 4 × 200 × 51 cm.

Hermione Hoby is the author of Neon in Daylight (2018).