Lynda Benglis became an art world legend with a single, notorious gesture: an announcement she placed in Artforum to publicize her 1974 sculpture show at Paula Cooper Gallery. In it, the enviably lithe, 33-year-old Louisiana native appeared with cropped hair, her body greased, sporting only the tan lines from her bikini, sunglasses, and a dildo of remarkable length. “Me too!” the artist’s “hard” image seemed to gleefully proclaim. “I’m in the club! That sculpture thing is mine!”
Benglis’s ad caused a famous ruckus. Seeing it again in “Gloria,” a show of 1970s feminist art at White Columns last season, it was difficult to decide which appeared quainter: her cockiness or the hilariously prissy letter of protest it inspired, signed by a clique of Artforum editors and published in the next issue.
How does one reconcile that swaggering upstart with the éminence grise of post-war American sculpture who emerges from this supremely elegant survey? The critic Richard Marshall, in his catalog essay, delicately refers to Benglis’s decades-long flirtation with vulgarity, by which he means her poured-latex floor pieces in Day-Glo colors from the 1960s, or the plaster-and-mesh tubes that she tied into knots and gaudily daubed with sparkles a few years later. But the Artforum ad (which goes unmentioned) also fits that line of aesthetic inquiry.
In fact, for nearly 40 years, Benglis has eloquently explored the messy, dark side of matter, with sculptures that drip, twist, billow, and ooze their way into the more uncomfortable crevices of our psyche, the places where the body’s fluid and mineral existence joins up with such diverse phenomena as oceanic tides, lava flows, and the heat at the earth’s center. If there’s a muse at work here, it’s not Pan, the randy satyr of Greek myth, whose image Benglis parodied in Artforum, but Gaia, the goddess of this planet, whose primal energy seems to inspire her.
In 1964, Benglis rode a bus north to New York, ditched the Brooklyn Museum of Art School after one semester, and began making her way around the then minuscule art scene. Her earliest pieces at Cheim & Read date from 1967—two lozenge-shaped surfaces deftly built up with coats of pigmented beeswax to resemble geological formations. Her emphasis on gesture and process linked her with other post-Minimalist sculptors—Richard Serra and Eva Hesse among them—whose highly personal, handmade abstractions were in part a reaction against Minimalism’s somber, monolithic legacy.
Soon she set off in uncharted territory. The gorgeous Night Sherbet A (1968)—a multi-layered blob of lime green and electric orange latex—sits on the floor where Pollock famously dripped his canvases and the Color Field painters poured theirs. Humble in its position, yet animated by an extravagant, youthful exuberance (as if puke died and went to heaven), it anticipates the extremes of gravity and transcendence between which her later work would veer.
Come (1969/74), in which seemingly viscous bronze is spewed across the floor like some bodily emission, and Quartered Meteor (1969), an immense molten mass densely piled up in a corner, evoke with rectitude and pathos the murkiness that lies both within us and at the furthest reaches of the cosmos. It’s as if the artist had merely arrested, for a moment, the constant, universal flow (think Lucretius) of one material into another.
In the ’70s, Benglis began a series of “Knots”—long, thin tubes of plaster or gauze-covered mesh, which she tied up and painted to resemble weary ballerinas collapsing in their tinsel and makeup, or the intertwined limbs of post-coital couples. At the time, knots were the portentous metaphor du jour of anti-psychiatrists like R.D. Laing and Jacques Lacan for everything from the structure of the mind to relationships. One imagines Benglis cheerily picking up the zeitgeist and comically twisting it.
The following decades saw her experimenting with seemingly weightless, pleated, and gilded forms that recall the ecstatic draperies of Bernini’s St. Teresa in Agony; with earthy, glazed ceramic sculptures; and with monstrous, bronze biomorphic abstractions, scaled to the body, that bear the repeated imprint of her hand.
Benglis’s most recent work marries seduction with a whiff of apocalypse. Bikini Incandescent Column (2004), a gigantic, illuminated paper lantern, rises some 14 feet into the cathedral-like entrance gallery. Its references—from Noguchi’s classical elegance to the atomic bomb tests conducted at Bikini Atoll, and from the curves of the feminine figure to a swelling phallus—may be a tad obvious, but the result is still awe-inspiring.
And there’s no Armageddon awaiting the reputation of a sculptor whose influence may be felt across a new generation, from Polly Apfelbaum’s floor pieces, to Matthew Barney’s gender-bending prostheses, to the goopy plastics of Charles Long and Roxy Paine, to Beverly Semmes’s experiments with abject giganticism. Blobby is here to stay.