MORE

Lynda Benglis at MOCA: Conceptual Art Meets Dildoes (NSFW)

Lynda Benglis, Fling, Dribble, and Drip, February 27, 1970, Life Magazine
Lynda Benglis, Fling, Dribble, and Drip, February 27, 1970, Life Magazine
Courtesy the artist and Cheim & Read, © Lynda Benglis, DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2009

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."

Lynda Benglis, Artforum Advertisement, 1974
Lynda Benglis, Artforum Advertisement, 1974
© 2008 Lynda Benglis, Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

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.

Alpha 1, from 1973-74, one of Benglis' powerful knots pieces
Alpha 1, from 1973-74, one of Benglis' powerful knots pieces
Courtesy of Beth Rudin DeWoody and Cheim & Read Gallery, New York, © Lynda Benglis, DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2009

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.

Lynda Benglis' Phantom, 1971
Lynda Benglis' Phantom, 1971
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

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.

 

Benglis has always reacted with a playful gut instinct to the issues at hand in the art world. With the biomorphic wall pour pieces, such as Phantom or her 1970 cast aluminium piece Wing, she took pictorial art into new ground through parody. Benglis says, "There were arguments at NYU about Is easel painting dead? What is figure-ground?" -- the idea of separating visual elements into objects against a background. "I began to mock that or allude to that in the paintings. I began to make structures with chicken wire and polyethylene plastic and poured it directly against the wall. But first I felt it, from my bowels and my stomach."

Wing, from 1970, one of Benglis' first wall pour pieces
Wing, from 1970, one of Benglis' first wall pour pieces
Courtesy of the artist and Cheim & Read Gallery, New York, © Lynda Benglis. DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2009

The show has some other unusual standouts, such as 1975's Primary Structures (Paula's Props), that don't fit neatly into Benglis' characteristically waxy and oozing body of work. Primary Structures consists of a scattering of small grecian columns over a lake of blue velvet, flanked by two ficuses and a plaster Jesus.

It's perhaps the most pop piece in the show, and it's no surprise that Benglis conceived of it when she was living in L.A. in the '70s. She was tightly knit into the L.A. artist community; she organized scuba-diving adventures for circles of artists, and was friends with California artists such as Robert Irwin, John Baldessari, and Peter Alexander. She was certainly familiar with the Santa Monica pier, which is where she got the plaster columns for Primary Structures.

Lynda Benglis's Primary Structures (Paula's Props), from 1975, replete with plaster Jesus, mini Porsche (which represents the car she drove from Seattle to California), and ficus trees
Lynda Benglis's Primary Structures (Paula's Props), from 1975, replete with plaster Jesus, mini Porsche (which represents the car she drove from Seattle to California), and ficus trees
Courtesy of the artist and Cheim & Read Gallery, New York, image courtesy New Museum, New York, photo by Benoit Pailley, © Lynda Benglis, DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2009

She was also taken with the more relaxed environment of the Los Angeles art scene, and the less macho artist culture, Ruiz explains. In L.A., Benglis could focus more on her own Greek ancestry, and says, "I was thinking of Greece -- I think the climate in L.A was very attractive and reminded me of the Mediterranean." This led to her final version of Primary Structures, but also to the development of her later "torso" pieces, a surprising collection of delicate, shimmering metallic structures that recall the classical human figure through their quasi-Grecian folds.

Benglis' more recent works are refined, abstract pieces that move away from the pop allusions of her earlier work to more universal questions of form and process. The last wall of the exhibit shows a collection of bronze sculptures painted black, recent work from a series called Figures. They were inspired by a series that Benglis produced for the new American Consulate in Mumbai, India, and this exhibit was her first opportunity to see them all together. She's also working with urethane in glowing, organic shapes, creating works like 2009's Pi Tangerine -- a vacillating, vibrating ball of orange designed to look as if it is rising and falling, like a sun on the horizon. She also continues to experiment in sculpting with new media, working with glass and begun creating a series of glass sculptures inspired by molds of African masks.

Lynda Benglis, Untitled (VW), 1970, one of her earlier and more pop-like wall/floor pieces.
Lynda Benglis, Untitled (VW), 1970, one of her earlier and more pop-like wall/floor pieces.
Courtesy of Galerie Michael Janssen, Berlin, © Lynda Benglis. DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2009 Lynda Benglis,

At MOCA on Friday, there was an overall sense that the retrospective was not only long overdue for Los Angeles, but will provide vital new ground and reference points for younger, contemporary artists. Benglis' work, in its balance among the outrageous, the outlandish, and ingenious formal sophistication, clearly has a long life ahead of it, and the art world has yet to begin understanding what her legacy truly means.

Follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.

Use Current Location

Related Location

miles
Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA Grand Avenue)

250 S. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012

213-626-6222

www.moca.org


Sponsor Content