Body Work


Just what was happening around 1970 to make Louise Bourgeois and Linda Benglis reach for a similar visual vocabulary? These two pioneering and influential artists (both still working) had long shared not just a pair of initials and a gallery, but a preoccupation with matter and the body’s messy, uncontrolled impulses. Their gender-bending explorations have come to seem feminist; whether they were explicitly so at the time for either of these highly intuitive artists remains an open question. This elegant show of work from the late ’60s and early ’70s reveals them overlapping in formal concerns, while diverging in processes and provocations.

Chief among the latter is the notoriously “cocky” ad Benglis placed in Artforum
to publicize her 1974 exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery, showing the 33-year-old artist naked, sporting sunglasses and a dildo. (“Proper” feminists protested.) It’s displayed here near a bronze cast she made of a similar sex toy, a doubled-headed phallus; its title, Smile, describes both its curving form, and what we do when we see it. For Bourgeois, on the other hand, phalluses were not exactly laughing matters, but forms endowed with an archaic, primitive power. Standing in the foyer of her Chelsea townhouse, wearing a long, latex-and-rubber vest covered with protuberances (in a 1980 photograph by Duane Michaels, also on display), the 79-year-old seems to dare us to approach her.

Five phallic shapes that she cast in jagged bronze rise from a shelf in the gallery as if from some unspecified lower depths, searching blindly into the light. Their multiple, proliferating forms subvert the phallus’s traditional singularity and intentionality. Another Bourgeois sculpture, a double-headed, dropping bronze member (Janus Fleuri, 1968) hangs from the ceiling, splitting open to reveal its seemingly molten inner core.

Its gooey insides find an echo in works Benglis made by pouring liquefied substances, like lead and latex, around her studio. Serra, at the time, was propping up lead in his atelier; Smithson was pouring it down mountainsides. Works by Benglis like Quartered Meteor (1969)—an oozy, gloopy mass piled up in a corner—relate to such experiments in process, domesticating untamed matter—but just barely.