T Magazine: The Greats: Lynda Benglis

October 15, 2022

Sasha Weiss

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I knew I was supposed to meet Lynda Benglis on a Thursday in Santa Fe, N.M., but I didn’t know exactly when or where. There was a vagueness surrounding our interview, and a sense of tension emanating from her gallery assistant and studio manager, as if the meeting might just as easily not happen as happen. After several hours of waiting, I got a call from her assistant: She had Benglis on the line. Benglis’s work is irreverent and definitive, no matter the medium, and I had expected someone prickly. But the voice that greeted me was easygoing, conspiratorial. 

After making sure I was comfortably settled at my hotel and deciding that I should walk over to see her at one of her two homes in town, Benglis asked if I was wearing pants or a dress. It was hot out, and I figured she wanted me to stay cool. I had planned on pants, I told her. Should I reconsider? She laughed, a little seductively. “No!” she said. And then she added, “Have you ever jumped an adobe wall?” She would be waiting for me on her porch and suggested I simply climb over the wall. Her assistant interjected dryly, “She might just go through the gate.” But I told her I’d be game to try: Benglis, it quickly became clear, is the kind of person who’s fun to please. 

When I arrived at her house, I discovered that scaling the wall would have been all but impossible—it was surrounded by bushes and trees—and was led through the back gate by a member of Benglis’s New Mexico team. In the yard, several small bronze sculptures of Benglis’s—squat, pocked, puckish—were scattered around the garden. I sat on a modest porch and waited. Minutes passed. Her assistant brought me a snack and periodically checked to see if I needed anything. 

As I waited, I speculated about Benglis’s failure to appear. Was this her way of asserting control over the interview? An indication of profound disorganization? Or was she simply someone who lives by her own whims, unconcerned about anyone’s expectations? 

Everything I knew about Benglis pointed to the last explanation. She is a giant of postwar American sculpture, a figure in the same cohort as Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Richard Serra and Frank Stella. Though her art is collected by major institutions and, at 80, she is still exhibiting new work, she’s not accorded the same reverence as her male peers, and she’s far less renowned. This may have something to do with the art itself, which has a teasing, elusive quality and is impossible to categorize. Her work constantly shifts: in scale, materials and technique. Benglis has poured, molded, flung, cast, burned, stretched and dismantled wax, latex, bronze, cotton, glitter, paper, gold leaf, glass, ceramic. Few other artists have displayed such nerve, or been less obedient. She has shaped the trajectory of various artistic movements—the heroic eloquence of Abstract Expressionism, the grandeur and engineering feats of post-minimalism, the gaudy cleverness of pop—and yet belongs fully to none of those traditions. 

You might view her oeuvre as an ongoing investigation of flow, her seemingly miraculous ability to arrest liquids. “If you think about each one of my works as a body,” Benglis told the curator Andrew Bonacina in 2020, “that body is always in motion.” 

When Benglis finally appeared in her garden, after about 30 minutes, it was with little fanfare and no apologies. She wore a striped shirt, a silk scarf around her neck, a pearl necklace and loose leggings with a tie-dye pattern of blacks, whites and yellows—ladylike on top, psychedelic on the bottom. She sat down across from me and launched into a wildly associative stream of stories, starting from the very beginning. “I was born in Lake Charles, La.,” she said, describing a large house with five children, an overburdened and sensitive mother and a father who taught his daughters to be outdoorswomen. There was a cascade of names from her early days in New York in the ’60s, where she was quickly embraced as an innovator: Carl Andre, Jennifer Bartlett, Leo Castelli, Paula Cooper, Eva Hesse, Joan Mitchell, Barnett Newman. I couldn’t always follow the connections that she was making, but I was buoyed along by the darting currents of her thought. 

Throughout our conversation, she kept returning to the subject of water—how she was attracted, ever since she was a girl, to what lived beneath it. “I learned to scuba dive in L.A.,” she told me, “and I went to Australia, scuba diving. New Zealand, diving.” The first time she did it, she felt great—“like I was back in the womb.” But this comforting sensation yielded to a sinister one: “They have the thing called rapture of the deep. If you’re down there too long or too deep, your brain changes.” She smiled and added, “These kinds of temptations interested me.” 

I suggested that this close relationship between menace and wonder was important to Benglis, especially in relation to her varied materials, and her intimate, sensual relationship with each one. How does she know where to start? 

The origins of her practice, she explained, are rooted in memories and intuitions. She began working her hands together as if she were holding two ropes. “I had a boat,” she said. “We had crawfish lines strung with a piece of bread.” The crawfish build muddy, bulbous mounds to protect themselves and their young. “They look like my textures,” she said. “I was born with the sense of building textures. We’re born with patterns. 

“Close your eyes,” Benglis commanded. “We see things. So that in itself is a starting point: How do you pattern your energy?” 

Benglis’s childhood was adventuresome and kinetic. Her father was an avid football player and all-around sportsman, and taught Benglis to throw and sail. She would go out on the water all day with her best friend, Norma Jean, crisscrossing the bayous in her 17-foot mahogany boat, collecting tadpoles and mosquito hawks or water-skiing. She takes some pride in being the eldest sibling—“I was the boss,” she said—but also felt encroached upon (her favorite things were always disappearing). After her younger sister was born, her mother fell into a depression and received shock treatments. Her illness was a small calamity in an otherwise happy childhood. Though Benglis remains deeply attached to her two sisters and two brothers, she has no children of her own: Having to help her mother care for her siblings when they were little influenced her desire not to have a traditional family life. 

The house was a place where art was made. Her mother was a seamstress and an amateur painter, and she would enlist her daughters in craft projects. Benglis’s father ran a building supply company, and she would sometimes join him on trips, sitting in the back seat of the car studying his catalogs full of materials (she still keeps sample catalogs of metals and resins in her house). On drives down to visit her mother’s relatives in Mississippi, Benglis would beg him to stop at a fun house in New Orleans whose imagery became a touchstone of her work. “You could go in these carts and through the dark, and these things came out at you,” Benglis explained. “There were the phosphorescent environments. There was all this stuff: color, costumes, clowns.” 

At Newcomb College in New Orleans, she majored in painting. She then attended the Yale Norfolk School of Art’s summer program in Connecticut, where many of her professors did figurative work in printmaking. Though she admired and was encouraged by some of her teachers, she felt a difference in her own way of thinking, an urge to push forward. “I knew that there was something that I could do that didn’t have to go back to the figure,” Benglis told me. “My brain wasn’t built for anything like that.” 

She was eager to get to New York, and moved there in 1964, enrolling in the now-defunct Brooklyn Museum Art School, and eventually worked as a grade-school teacher. She was embraced by Barnett Newman and his wife, Annalee, who threw parties at their house for young artists, and hung out with the painter Gordon Hart (whom she briefly married), the sculptor Robert Murray and Stella. It was a time of wild invention and boundary pushing, the pinnacle of the postwar American art scene. Jasper Johns was making enigmatic bronze casts of beer cans. Andy Warhol was making screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and of the death chamber at New York’s Sing Sing Prison. Judd published his treatise on minimalism known as “Specific Objects,” in which he outlined a desire for a new kind of art that was “neither painting nor sculpture.” Benglis speaks of this heavily mythologized era with casual aplomb. The mood, she said, was: “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine.” Stella told me over the phone that he thought of Benglis as “Ms. Natural.” With her, art making seemed like “an untroubling enterprise.” 

She was working in an unheated studio downtown, using wax instead of paint on oblong surfaces that were the length of her arm—an oblique reference to her body. Benglis was interested in the liquidity of paint but disliked the idea of a frame or canvas. She painted with wax on Masonite board; each new layer would catch the irregularities of the previous brushstrokes, so that the surfaces became bumpy and sculptural, the wax creating a kind of skin. The paintings were sexy, a little disturbing: She called them “a mummified version of painting.” One day, she noticed how the wax kept spilling onto her studio’s floor. She’d been looking for a way to release herself from the limitations of a frame or a wall, and here it was: She would try throwing the material directly onto the ground. She opened the phone book and found a rubber maker with a small lab to mix custom latex for her. Back in her studio, she used buckets full of it and poured their contents in a heaving motion, the latex spreading like gorgeous chemical spills. 

The poured sculptures were celebrated by critics, and Benglis, only 28, was profiled in Life and New York magazine. In the Life spread, a series of photographs shows her midpour, alongside a photo of Jackson Pollock flinging paint onto a canvas on the floor. She looks focused and determined, a female counterpart to the soulful Abstract Expressionists—yet her works wink at theirs, mocking the idea of the precious mark of the artist’s hand. 

It pleased her that, soon after the Life article was published, she also appeared on the cover of Rubber Developments, a trade publication for the rubber industry. She liked everyday materials that were also used in things like pillows and bicycles. Warhol made art about mass-produced objects, but Benglis was among the first in the vanguard of artists who consistently incorporated industrial materials into their visual vocabularies. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the pours, slyly feminist and populist, were occasionally received with condescension. One of her early sculptures, a 33-foot-long piece called “Contraband,” was to be included in a major 1969 show of post-minimalism at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art called “Anti-Illusion,” but Benglis didn’t appreciate the spot the curator had chosen for her work—on a ramp. She pulled the piece. 

In the following years, she continued to develop her practice of pouring, working with polyurethane foam, another liquid material that she could stop in its tracks, and which retained its look of softness and malleability even after it solidified. A number of the resulting foam works—“King of Flot” (1969); “For Carl Andre” (1970)—seemed to ooze against the corners of gallery walls. They were at once naturalistic and cartoonish, attractive and repellent, inviting touch. She also began making huge interventions into the gallery space, building undulating armatures of wood and chicken wire up to 12 feet high, and then climbing on a ladder to pour polyurethane foam over them, wearing goggles and a mask. She called this strenuous work a kind of drawing or, borrowing a phrase from the art critic Robert Pincus-Witten, a “frozen gesture.” When the chicken wire frames were removed, what remained were huge, ghostly forms that seemed to leap off the gallery walls. 

In 1971, Benglis used this method to create six large-scale installations at art institutions across the country. Some of her flying, lavalike monsters were pigmented black; others were bright red and pink; still others were phosphorescent—echoes of the thrilling fun house of her childhood. Sometimes, she had them taken down and destroyed in a matter of weeks. They were an expression of Benglis’s ferocity. She was a rigorous formalist, yes, but she was also theatrical, a kind of witch. The critic and curator Klaus Kertess wrote of two of these installations that “the intensity of their black rage is unprecedented in contemporary art … their openness and freedom are almost embarrassing to contemporary mores and aesthetics.” He meant this as a high compliment. 

Benglis was often photographed while making these monumental works. She knew the force of her own appeal—young, strong, a dancer in the air—and would deliberately face the camera from high up on a ladder. Her awareness of how her image was used in the press, and her desire to manipulate it, gave rise to a series of performances—in the form of videos, advertisements for her gallery shows and photographs—culminating in a work so provocative that it continues to define Benglis’s career, and the course of feminist art. 

In 1974, knowing that a serious appraisal of her art by Pincus-Witten would be published in the November issue of Artforum, she placed an ad in the magazine, a work of art in its own right. It’s a portrait of her, naked, riding a comically large dildo and wearing winged sunglasses that obscure her eyes. Her mouth is suggestively open—though it’s hard to say whether she’s grimacing or in the throes of pleasure. Her body is slicked with oil, and she flaunts her tan lines and rib cage, shoulders up, elbow bent, ass out: an exaggerated posture of arousal. Despite its in-your-face sexuality, the image is complex. It’s trashy but defiant, exploitative but self-possessed, intended to poke at the primness of the art establishment and what Benglis saw as the rigidity of feminism—another movement she was adjacent to but not quite a part of. 

The ad scandalized the art world, and prompted endless feminist debates: Was she debasing herself by pandering to men or breaking open constraints on female desire and making space for unbridled self-expression? (Two of the magazine’s editors were so offended that the ad had run at all that they famously left Artforum to establish the more conservative journal October.) The image is considered one of the most important Pop and feminist artworks of the 20th century—up there with Warhol’s bananas in the change it wrought in art history—but it is an anomaly in Benglis’s career. The rest of her work, though highly charged, is never so explicit. Yet the aura of controversy surrounding her as a result of the ad has never entirely dissipated, and has arguably eclipsed discussion of her enormous body of work, which is, subtly, more radical. 

That image of her, which would go on to appear in hundreds of art history articles and syllabuses, is so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget that it’s part of a larger sequence of photographs, made in the early ’70s, that Benglis called “sexual mockeries.” In these images she explored social role-playing, posing herself as a seductress, as a woman on a pedestal, swaggering next to a car. She was trying on personae, creating a reel of feminine archetypes and burlesques that she could adopt and discard with ease—anticipating by several years photographers like Cindy Sherman, with her experiments in constructing selves, and Nan Goldin’s unguarded depictions of sexuality. Benglis scrambled the categories of objectified and objectifier, and modeled gender fluidity decades before such conversations would go mainstream. 

Looking at the Artforum ad almost half a century after its original publication, you feel less shock than wonder at its ambiguity. (Benglis’s studio assistants told me they still receive requests to reproduce it several times a year. It remains controversial; New York Times standards prevent it from being shown here.) Seen alongside the next 40 years of her career, the image feels like a sketch for ideas Benglis would elaborate with more suppleness: the contradictory experience of living in a body, the relationship between attraction and repulsion, the willfulness and even aggression that go into making art and presenting it to the world. Benglis doesn’t relish being asked about the ad in interviews; she tends to answer questions about it with what feels like put-on guilelessness. “I was just trying to express myself,” she told me. “That’s it.” 

In addition to a studio complex in the desert, Benglis has two properties in Santa Fe, about a mile apart from one another. The first, where I initially met her, is a traditional adobe structure built in 1931—low, cool, compact, bristling with bright paintings by friends and raffish clay vessels she made in college that already look like Benglis’s. The other house, built in 1915, is much wider, with airier rooms. She likes to move between the two, depending on her mood. In fact, she usually migrates all over the place—between a home in Walla Walla, Wash., near one of the foundries where she casts her bronzes; her loft in SoHo; her studio on the Bowery; her house and studio in the Hamptons; her grandmother’s ancestral home on an island in Greece—but during Covid-19 she’d stayed put for longer stretches than she was used to. She said she can decorate a house in two weeks flat. 

To spend time with Benglis is to submit to her insistent sharing of appetites—I must make time to go to Ojo Caliente spa near Santa Fe, I must meet some of her artist friends in town (“I’m really here for you,” I told her at one point, to which she replied rather sharply: “Well, look, I like to always share. I don’t believe in categorization”), I must see the Girard collection of toys at Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art, and acquire a dachshund like hers. Near the end of our time together, she took charge of the conversation to tell me about her dreams, explaining that they always have the same preamble. “I shut my eyes and I would be on a platter, like a bird, bound,” she said. “I went through a long warm oven.” There would be doors on either side of her and she would always choose where the dream went next. It was important to her to get this across: Even while dreaming, she was making choices, exerting her will. 

When it felt like the conversation had lost momentum for a moment, prompting me to ask if she needed a break, she never took the openings I gave her to retreat. A wave of languor would pass and then we’d be on to the next thing—a meal of lemony roast chicken and cold carrots; a conversation about her great love, the molecular biologist, philanthropist and collector Anand Sarabhai, her partner for over 30 years before he died in 2013. Benglis told me that when Sarabhai died, she knew she didn’t want anyone else. Her restlessness seems to have found a permanent home with him. 

Benglis speaks the way she works, changing topics like she changes materials. She is committed to anything that interests her—until it doesn’t anymore, and then she finds a new thing to push and pull. For several decades, Benglis was fascinated by knots. “Everything is a knot,” she told the poet and teacher Judith Tannenbaum in 2009. “A growing plant is a knot, a body is a knot, every embryo is a knot.” First, she began making knots out of aluminum wire mesh that she covered with cotton muslin or gauze and then with plaster. She would twist and tie these and color them with glittery paint, hanging them on the wall. She later created metalized knots, spraying them with vaporized metals; other knots were encased in sheets of brilliant gold leaf. Knots eventually transformed into fans, pleated wire mesh forms that she also sprayed with metal, and which evoke lungs, angels, flight. 

Even as she fashioned these smaller, creaturely objects, she kept working on a large scale, making monumental fountains that were displayed in the United States and Europe, and ceramic sculptures that she would put through an extruder so that they came apart in places, which she would then mold with her hands so that they bore the marks of both machine and human. She enlarged some of these and cast them in shiny metals—jagged, ritzy trophies. She was also fashioning chicken wire into gracefully twisting forms, echoes of the Gothic churches and the caryatids she had seen as a girl with her grandmother on a trip to Greece, layering them with thick, wet sheets of paper. When the paper dried, it took on an unpredictable topography. 

After a long day of sitting and talking, Benglis was suddenly restless. She wanted to show me some of the paper pieces she’d been working on in her studio. So she flung an orange scarf around her neck, and off we drove in her white pickup truck. The day was cooling and there was a wildfire in the desert, the progress of which Benglis tracked with fascination as smoke hurled itself into the sky. She studied the clouds—a bulging one that resembled one of her sculptures caught her attention. “Looks like a brain,” she said. “The cloud has a mind.” We got off the highway and bounced down a rugged road, parking at her studio complex comprising three adobe buildings. Here, Benglis stalked around, purposeful, watching the progress of the smoke, noticing disapprovingly the trees that had been improperly watered, studying a new angle of shadow on the mountain across the arroyo. We walked to another building, her main work space, and calm descended. Benglis said: “This is a gentle place here. It’s like a church to me.” 

A number of her paper pieces hung on the walls, all captured in a posture of stilled transformation, as if she had fixed them in their moment of becoming. Many of them were painted in glimmering reds, greens, blacks. Glitter is another material that connects to a sensual experience from Benglis’s childhood: She wore a sparkly outfit in dance class, twisting her baton, thrilling to the possibilities of performance. Modern glitter was invented in the mid-30s, and it made a big impression on her as a girl. “Sequins were one thing,” she said, “but sparkles were just something else.” She sat down on a low stool and looked up at the pieces on the wall. “To me, they express themselves. They look back at you.” 

In another building were more recent examples of her paper pieces, which she’d made to look cracked and decaying. They were white, unpainted, their skins peeling to reveal their chicken wire girding. The process of the paper drying “animates them,” Benglis told me. “The cracks and crevices animate them—as we have in our earth cracks, and crevices in our faces and our skins.” She looked, perhaps for the first time that day, earnest. The works made her think, she said, of “eroding, death.” Some of the paper pieces were far away, at shows in Dallas and Philadelphia, but these she was keeping close. She wasn’t finished finding out what could happen with them. 

Benglis’s Final Exhortation to me was to go see an exhibition of her work at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. I must see her group of three fountains, “Bounty, Amber Waves, Fruited Plane,” unofficially referred to as “The Bounties,” that were installed in the garden, completed last year. I changed my ticket and stopped there on my way home the next day. 

One of the paths to the fountains is through the alleyway created by a 1987 Richard Serra work called “My Curves Are Not Mad,” two 14-foot-tall walls of Cor-Ten steel, each seeming to list, perilously, toward the other, creating a narrowed perspective. The corridor it forms is about 10 feet long, cocooning and oppressive, and you can’t see your way out until you’ve almost come to the end. 

When I emerged into the light a few seconds later, I was greeted by Benglis’s work. Like “My Curves Are Not Mad,” the piece insists on its own grandeur, while gently rebuking Serra’s intensity. Benglis’s sculpture consists of three 25-foot-tall fountains, each constructed out of a pile of bulbous, cone-shaped bowls suggestive of her childhood crawfish mounds, their height both sublime and goofy. It made me laugh. If you stand too close to the fountains, they splash you a bit, inviting you to play. 

Benglis’s work sits at a meeting point between will and submission. Her manipulation of materials, her way of catching transformation in the act, may be masterful, but she also courts spontaneity. Her work requires a period of waiting—as the rubber hardens, the paper adheres to the wire, the water rushes out of dozens of hidden valves. Emerging from the darkness to encounter the sculptures felt like another invitation from Benglis, the same one she has been offering to herself for most of her life: Stay with this for however long you like. You know what to do next.

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