Lynda Benglis, "Soft Off," Apr. 18-May 31, 2002, at Locks Gallery, 600 Washington Square South, Philadelphia, Pa. 19106
For more than 30 years, Lynda Benglis has been pouring, knotting and spraying materials to make forms that ooze and coagulate, billow and swoop. Meditations on nature and the body, the works can be gorgeous or scary. And with their hands-on physicality, body references and androgynous edge, the pieces presage the work of a younger generation of artists [think of Robert Gober and Kiki Smith]. "I was interested in the rhythms of nature and the dance," said Benglis, 61, when we talked before the opening of her mini-retrospective at Locks Gallery.
Benglis, an early feminist, is also known for an ad she placed in Artforum magazine in 1974. The ad shows the artist, nude, striking a macho attitude and holding an enormous dildo. This message of female empowerment and anger might have scorched the earth around some feminist encampments, but Benglis, who was looking to inject a little humor in the movement, said the ad was a catalyst for change at the magazine. "Ingrid Sischy told me that my ad inspired her to start the artist's project series at Artforum."
I asked Benglis about her poured latex pieces from 1969, three of which are in the Locks show. These works catapulted her to fame in 1970, when Life magazine featured them in a photo spread that compared her work with the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock.
RF: You said you wanted to make your own paint. How did that idea come about?
LB: I wanted to find a medium that could carry the pigment and be independent of a framework, independent of stretchers and canvas. So I began to make my own formats and in the case of the poured pieces, use the floor or the wall as the kind of prop. I started with pigments and the material -- beeswax or latex rubber. Wax and latex allude to skin. I did installations all over the country and the world.
RF: The colors on the floor pieces are wonderful. They're so man-made, so unreal compared to your other pieces which use the natural colors of the materials.
LB: I was living in New York at the time and I was very interested in that. These are colors without the addition of black. They're intense colors. And I was interested in these pieces having the illusion of popping up from the floor.
RF: Tell me how you poured them and how you got those psychedelic swirls.
LB: I waxed the concrete floor. And I got buckets of latex rubber and poured it. Each bucket would have a different color. I kept pouring and it would spread. I didn't use a brush. I would thin some of it with a little bit of water and would get these sort of balloon effects, the way a balloon is when it's stretched. There was a [Helen] Frankenthaler show up at the time I made my first piece, and I called it Odalisque (Hey Hey Frankenthaler).
RF: Did Helen Frankenthaler ever see it?
LB: She knew about it because we were asked by one of the television studios to be paired up together and I think she didn't want to. She was afraid of being somehow exposed in the context of a younger artist. She was very protective of her situation. You know, she had come up under the auspices of Clement Greenberg. Joan Mitchell was the only artist, female artist, who was open to younger artists. But Helen Frankenthaler was not.
RF: Did you know Joan Mitchell?
LB: Yeah, absolutely, and Barnett Newman. He was very friendly to young artists. And I danced with him. We drank, we had breakfast together, my boyfriend and myself and Annalee, just us. Yeah, we knew him very well. He loved to dance. He smoked cigars. Probably we danced at someone's home. You know, I don't quite remember. Maybe a party.
But I saw him many times. We hung out together. Also an artist named Bob Murray, who introduced him to Lippincott (the foundry in North Haven where Broken Obelisk was cast). Barney was in his late 50s, early 60s and he was vying with Ad Reinhardt to be father of the Minimalist movement. So he felt very competitive towards Reinhardt.
RF: How about Joan Mitchell? Tell me a Joan Mitchell story.
LB: Joan Mitchell in the boat. She was married to Jean-Paul Riopelle [the Canadian abstract painter died on Mar. 12 at age 78] and she was also the girlfriend of Mike Goldberg. She was a very heavy drinker, and one time she slashed her paintings and Mike Goldberg sewed them up for her. So that was kind of interesting. Mike Goldberg is a gentleman. He's 77 now, a painter of her generation. Joan died some years ago of cancer.
When Barnett Newman died I was on the boat, Riopelle's boat, a large sailing boat, and we heard it on the radio and I was very sad. And we were having a little drink and Mitchell said, "I don't feel so badly." I said I feel very upset, he's a friend. She said, "I don't." She sort of maybe cursed him. She said, "I don't have any feeling about him whatsoever. If de Kooning died, I would have some feeling. He was my father." In other words, she felt her kinship artistically was with de Kooning.
RF: It's awfully vehement to express it that way.
LB: She was like that. She didn't like something, she'd let you know. And there were camps during that time. And expressionism wasn't too popular. And when I was doing my relatively expressionistic work I could see that I sided with Joan. But I knew them all and I liked them all. So it wasn't important for me to side with any of them because it was new territory anyway. Expressionism wasn't the same. And this is very important, matter had taken a more mannered form. We had a different relationship to the physical. We were involved but we were more removed from the physical.