Monday, June 20, 2011

Lynda Benglis at the New Museum

"All my art is erotic, suggestive..." — Lynda Benglis

After working for 15 days straight, I was thrilled to get away on the week-end before starting a new job this week. What does one do with exactly 12 hours in New York, besides feel badly about not having more time for social engagements? Between breakfast in Bryant Park, subway transit toward Coney Island surrounded by 14 matching mermaids, a Trivial Pursuit game at Brooklyn’s Pizza Plus (where, incidentally, I answered the question, “What noted women’s rights activist got married in 2000 in the home of Wilma Mankiller? (1)” correctly, thank-you very much), dinner in Hell’s Kitchen with an artist friend in her last week in the city, and a late night stroll through Greenwich Village, I managed to squeeze in a pit stop to the New Museum with my husband.

It was the closing week-end of Lynda Benglis’ first retrospective exhibition in 20 years, organized by the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Dublin) in collaboration with Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven). I was familiar with Benglis primarily as a counterpoint to my favourite artist, Hannah Wilke: besides both being Second Wave feminists who poured latex to create sculptures in the spirit of abstract expressionism, referenced Marcel Duchamp in performative work, and appropriated Greek costuming in self-portraiture, they upped the ante of nude self-advertising in lockstep. The culmination was Benglis unwittingly providing Wilke with a venue to undress in protest to Benglis’ infamous Artforum ad; not only was it at her exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery, but it was at her opening reception (2). When I read this in Nancy Princenthal’s monograph, Hannah Wilke (Prestel, 2010), I sat on my little Ikea couch feeling stunned and somehow betrayed by my ‘idol’. Her audacity struck me as the antithesis of how my former colleague, Julian Kreimer, described Benglis’ approach to art making: “respectful irreverence.” (3)

The fact that I have used Kreimer’s quotation out of context to home in on feminism substantiates Emily Nathan’s observation that the importance of concept and form in Benglis’ art are equally weighted (4). It is tempting to have a singular focus, and had I not traipsed through New York in the heat beforehand, I would probably have indulged in finding evidence of Benglis’ insistence that “All my art is erotic, suggestive” (5). I was too fatigued to process innuendo-laden titles like ‘Come’ (1969-74) for an amorphous floor sculpture until writing this post. So, form it was. The highlight of the amorphous sculptures was Phantom (1971), which has not been exhibited for the past 40 years; I actually exclaimed aloud when I entered a darkened room to find five large glow-in-the-dark sculptures reminiscent of the overlapping blobs and shards of ice that accumulate in Niagara Falls during the winter. As the air conditioning took hold and I moved through the other rooms, I was delighted to discover her wall-hung cocoon sculptures, not the least because of my longstanding interest in the convergence of this medium and subject matter. These oblong panels were like cocoons cruelly bisected to reveal interlocking slick shapes in colours evocative of—strangely enough—gummy worms. In my state of probable dehydration, I fixated on these interlocking forms with each new piece, especially in the huge monocrhomatic abstract forms that deviated from the cocoon shape entirely. With no obvious focal point, they become an invitation to let your eyes dance around the surface, which was a trance I welcomed. Although I was not in a position to make the most of this show, I was reminded that seeing work in person is always worthwhile, to appreciate some element that eludes reproductions. For me, this eureka moment was spawned by the cast lead version of the same double-headed dildo that fractured the Artforum editors in 1974 when Benglis straddled it naked, save for a pair of sunglasses. Seeing nails positioned ever so precariously around the semicircular shaft to keep it in place, I couldn’t help but smile, which is fitting since that is the name of the piece.

For images, see the New Museum.

(1) Answer: Gloria Steinem.
(2) This intervention in New York in 1975 was entitled Invasion Performance.
(3) Kreimer, Julian. “Shape Shifter: Lynda Benglis”. Art in America. 12/1/09, pp. 95-101.Quotation ¶5.
(4) Nathan, Emily. "Lynda Benglis: Top Form". Artnet. February 11, 2011.
(5) Seiberling, Dorothy. “The New Sexual Frankness: Good-by to Hearts and Flowers”. New York Magazine, 8 (7), pp. 37-44. Quotation p. 42.