"Lynda Benglis: A Sculpture Survey 1969-2004," installation view at Cheim & Read
Bikini Incandescent Column
Lynda Benglis at Cheim & Read, 2004
|In Pursuit of the Organic
by Robert G. Edelman
"Lynda Benglis: A Sculpture Survey 1969-2004," Feb. 26-Apr. 3, 2004, at Cheim & Read, 547 West 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001
Over a 35-year-long career, the sculptor Lynda Benglis has almost single-handedly articulated what could be called the erotics of Anti-Form. Her work is about movement, but movement of a particularly Dionysian sort -- her materials flow and drip, they sparkle and shine, they twist and turn into amorous postures. In contrast to the masculine discipline of Minimalism, Benglis brings a distinctly female focus to the Postminimalist "process and materials" sensibility that succeeded it.
The recent survey of her work at Cheim & Read provided an opportunity to see the range of invention and experimentation that characterizes Benglis' production, from the "stroked" beeswax wall pieces of 1967-68 and the poured "spills" of brightly colored latex of 1968-70 to her new series of cast bronze fountains shaped like tornados or nuclear clouds. In between, Benglis has investigated the sculptural dynamics of a wide variety of materials -- pigmented polyurethane foam, wax, cast aluminum, lead, glass, clay and bronze (not to mention her steamy videos, which were sadly not included here).
On balance, I suppose one could argue that Benglis' sculpture lacks the formal rigor of her Minimalist cousins, yet her work makes up for its informality with with its vitality, spontaneity and general rambunctiousness. The beeswax wall pieces on masonite are iconic and lean yet marvelously and subtly colored, possessed of a luminous, translucent glow. Embryo II (1967) resembles the underbelly of an exotic crustacean, or some shamanistic totem. The color is put on in many layers, with a muted gray-green on top, something like an early Brice Marden work done in 3D.
Another wax wall piece, Karen (1972), looks like a fragment of a landscape of dense foliage, seen from high above. Both works are discreetly bisected across the middle (they measure about 36 inches tall by five inches wide), suggesting an organically generated, mirrored geometry.
Perhaps Benglis' best-known works are her poured floor pieces of pigmented foam, represented here by Night Sherbet A and Night Sherbet B (both 1968). These seductive mounds of overlapping, melting color were aptly described by New York Times critic Roberta Smith as an attempt to "give liquidity permanent and dramatic form." This assessment could probably be applied to most of Benglis' sculpture, including the eerie cast aluminum piece entitled Wing (1970). Extending from the wall in a weightless cascade, the resultant shape moves aqueously, almost sentiently through space.
Another group of wall sculptures, more solid yet just as mobile, are the knotted and gnarled pieces from the early '70s made of cotton bunting covered with aluminum screen and metallic paint. The playful Uno (1974) resembles a pretzel, or shoelaces tied by a child in a hurry, while the humorous Yankee (1974), with its silvery aluminum proboscis, is reminiscent of a Philip Guston caricature of Richard Nixon. This body of work leads ultimately to the gorgeous wall jewelry of works like Chicago Caryatid No. 4 (1979) and the elaborate and pleated golden-bronze brooch-styled Panhard (1989).
This series brought Benglis' sculpture to a kind of decorative pinnacle. As if in compensation, during the 1990s, her work took a rather darker turn. The powerful floor-piece Cloak-Wave/Pedmarks (1998) is a seven-foot-tall incorporeal mass of black patinaed bronze that is punched and punctured across its twisting, encrusted surface. Nine Spot Field (1999) is a group of mutating forms, hard globules of cast silver that suggest moon rocks melted down over millennia.
Observed more closely, these forms are in the process of transformation, from crystalline to molten, as though frozen between two disparate states of matter. Equally compelling is the Silicone bronze Web (1999), a balled-up mass of blackened spaghetti strands, like some remnant either human-made or made of human.
At the same time, Benglis continued to make sculptures of decorative sophistication. Ghost Dance/Pedmarks (1995-96) is an amorphous rough-hewn mass covered with gold leaf, while Paego (1995-6) is a boldly hued and rough-hewn ceramic work, a truncated organic form turned in on itself like a snake shedding its skin. And the shroomesque Summer Dreams from 2003, a precursor of a whose series of cast bronze fountains that are underway in her studio, has Alice in Wonderland associations, all squishy, gilded entrails.
The most recent sculpture in the exhibition, Bikini Incandescent Column (2004), is also the largest. Standing more than 13 feet tall, it's a hanging paper lamp that is not unlike one of Isamu Noguchi's Akari lamps, but more sensuous and suggestive, of the human body as well as of the atomic bomb testing at Bikini Island. Maybe it's a nod to the old Minimalist crowd, a "see, I can do that too" sort of thing. It's a minor glitch in an otherwise impressive show.
ROBERT G. EDELMAN is an artist and writer. He is gallery director of Anita Friedman Fine Arts.