Lynda Benglis: Early Work 1967-1979
October 8 through December 23, 2020
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, December 2020
The work of Lynda Benglis, now nearly 80 years old, functions as an alternative to the minimalism that surrounded her as a young artist. Not of a minimalist persuasion, the artist is demonstrably more sensual in her treatment of form; indeed, much of the art in her show, whose title is “Lynda Benglis: Early Work 1967-1979,” consists of two series: a group of lozenge-shaped vertical wallworks, comparable to erect phalluses or vaginal slits; and several examples of her pigmented polyurethane foam pours, which consist of overlapping layers of darker color and lie on the floor--in direct antithesis to the vertical monumentality of most sculpture. Benglis is an artist of erotic possibilities that occur, in part, by their imitation of the body and its loose form, rather than the hard, straight-edge, close to architectural orientation of artists like Richard Serra and Donald Judd. Benglis’s refusal to imitate the monumentally upright--her decision to rely on the horizontal--goes against much work of the later Sixties and Seventies, and so it can be understood as a critique of mostly male assertion. Increasingly, she is recognized as an artist whose contribution to American sculpture is major, both in its own right and as an alternative to a time when acclaimed sculpture was mostly made by men.
Yet it cannot be said that the work is entirely inchoate or formless. The lozenges, of medium size, are elegant shapes, with rounded top and bottom edges. Their narrow composition is encrusted with beeswax and resin and sometimes gesso. The surface is gloriously sensual, adding to the erotic flair, overall, of the form it covers. If it is true that Benglis’s art can be seen primarily as an exercise in the sensuality of shape and materials, then we can say that the lozenges present a phallic presence stemming from the heated atmosphere of the Sixties, when sexual expression was a constant. Tu-Lip (1967), created with beeswax, gesso, and resin on masonite and wood, is just over thirty inches tall and five inches wide. It is divided roughly in half by color--brown above and a darker green below. The shape does relate to minimalist art of the time, but its surface is rich with pigment and texture, in contrast to the flat, often metal exteriors of much of the art made then. Karen (1972), a lozenge composed of wax on wood, has a surface embellished by the regular placement of lichen- or mushroom-like, crescent forms edging outward from a dark background--as if from a tree. Benglis’s pieces’ effectiveness reside in their directness of form and presentation; the motivation for their being made seems unspoken, abstract.
With regard to the poured, polyurethane foam works, we can see that their low, piled layers must be regarded, at least in part, as an imitation of excrement--surely a way of thumbing one’s nose in the face of high-minded culture! But it is also true that these works are poured paintings, whose horizontal orientation to the floor distinguishes them from their usual placement on the wall. Darkly colored, with the spills partially overlapping, these paintings, or low reliefs, can be said to enact a critique of sculpture’s traditional orientation. They are also marvelously sensuous and sensual, likely demonstrating Benglis’s love of the organically unformed in three-dimensional art. In Shape Shifter (1968), the overlapping pours of foam are variously colored: dark green, red, orange, black. Rising only a very few inches off the floor, the sculpture sits inert, without any visible need of support. It offers us a primal presentation of color nearly as a bodiless experience--were it not for the slender width of the material.
A final group of sculptures, built with plaster shaped by chicken wire and colored with gesso and gold leaf, again aligns with the often embryonic nature of Benglis’s production. Made during the late Seventies, these wallworks are literally golden, their overall form a deliberate simplification. In Figure I (1978), an hourglass shape, roughly 35 inches tall, is covered in gold leaf. Its exterior is moderately rough, accentuating the simple nature of its shape. Skowhegan Torso (1979), another close-to-formless shape covered with gold leaf, is rather italic in its overall shape, with an irregular exterior. Its top and bottom extend outward in horizontal fashion, beyond the trunk of the work. As a group, these pieces look like meditations on an art deliberately sited somewhere between figuration and abstraction. Benglis’s mastery of form’s implications, as well as its actualities, results in work suggestive of a refusal to commit to a single way of shaping--with compelling results. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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