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the fate of a gesture: lynda benglis

by Carter Ratcliff  

Robert Morris

Lynda Benglis

Carter Ratcliff
The Fate of A Gesture: Jackson Pollock and
Postwar American Art.

   With imperiously graceful gestures, Jackson Pollock flung paint through the air. His technique -- dramatic and still astonishing -- continues to influence other artists.

Surging to the edge of the canvas, sailing past it, Pollock's loops and swirls of color draw the imagination into a region of boundless space. Pollock's friend Barnett Newman did something similar by different means. So, on occasion, did Clyfford Still, another member of their generation.

Yet these painters did not form a school. They founded no tradition. There can be no clear line of descent from artists who cultivated an ideal of absolute self-sufficiency.

Rather than follow Pollock's example, younger artists reinvented it. Among the most extraordinary is Lynda Benglis, who poured latex and pigmented polyurethane instead of paint. A bit later, she responded to a self-portrait by Robert Morris with one of her own. Benglis's self-portrait with dildo and sunglasses has become one of the icons of American art. We take up the story toward the end of 1974.

In November, Artforum published a color photograph of the sculptor Lynda Benglis in the nude. Her skin looks well tanned and liberally oiled. Slim yet decidedly feminine, she has assumed a hip-slung pose with back arched -- a sexy contrapposto. Her hair is short and slicked back. On her lips a pout is becoming a sneer, and there is a hint of Lolita in the white-rimmed sunglasses that hide her eyes. From Benglis's crotch extends a long and meticulously detailed dildo, held in place with her right hand.

This picture appeared in the front of the issue, as an advertisement for the artist's show at the Paula Cooper Gallery. Farther along was an essay on Benglis by Robert Pincus-Witten, then an associate editor of Artforum. The following month, the other associate editors -- Lawrence Alloway, Max Kozloff, Rosalind Krauss, Joseph Masheck, Annette Michelson -- published a letter to the editor in chief, John Coplans, to let the art world know how deeply they had been offended by the "extreme vulgarity" of Benglis' picture.

It "made a shabby mockery" of "the movement for women's liberation," they said. They called it an effort of "self-promotion ... in the most debased sense of the term," thus an "exploitation" of the art-world audience and larger public. Noting that one must always be on guard against "complicity" with the marketplace, the editors declared that vigilance would have done no good in this instance. Behind their backs, others at Artforum had made a shameful deal to publish a completely unacceptable photograph. Though the error was not their fault, the editors felt obliged to renounce it and to assure their readers that in the future they would bring "critical analysis" to bear on the conditions that allowed this outrage to occur.

Benglis's picture would unsettle anyone not fixated on precisely this mix of sexual attributes: gorgeously feminine body, boyish haircut, super-masculine phallus. The editors' displeasure arrived on schedule, as expected. Still, it was a mild shock to see how determined they were to feel nothing but displeasure, disgust, indignation. A few months later, Robert Rosenblum wrote to Artforum with a proposal: "Let's give three dildos and a Pandora's Box to Ms. Lynda Benglis, who finally brought out of the closet the Sons and Daughters of the Founding Fathers of the Artforum Committee of Public Decency and Ladies' Etiquette. Too bad they weren't around to protest when Dada and Surrealism let those arty people run amok and do all those unspeakably vulgar things."

Many besides Rosenblum believed that the Artforum editors had taken a run at Benglis, theoretical lances at the ready, and completely -- hilariously -- missed her. Their aim might have been better if they had listened to the bits of the artist's conversation that pop up in Pincus-Witten's article. Art in New York, says Benglis, is "all about territory," so there is only one pertinent question: "How big?" How big is the zone you capture and occupy with your painting, your floor sculpture, your video piece, your public persona? How powerful is the image that establishes your presence?

To the perennial question How big?, Benglis's dildo gave a literal response: This big. Ironic in her literalism, she mocked the bigness she flaunted. Eyes bulging with horror, Artforum's editors saw the bigness but missed the mockery. Eyes averted, they gave a censorious recital of proper thoughts about feminism, the market, and the standards of decorum that are supposed to keep self-promotion under control.

The charges against Benglis did no damage to her already successful career. The advertisement in Artforum was self-promotional, yes, and crass, of course. It was shamelessly vulgar. Nonetheless, it was not merely crass, not merely vulgar. But no one could say exactly why not. The dazzle and the bizarre innocence of her picture teased earnest thought into doubts about its prowess. Benglis flourished in a shimmer of misconceptions. Seen now, her self-portrait with dildo gives her the look of an idol, the limber kind that joins contraries into happy unions. She is male and female, grotesque and comely, enraged and seductive, an aesthete and a political agitator. The art world couldn't make much sense of an image that reached across so many categories, and certain details were too obscure to be grasped.

Only recently did Benglis explain what she meant by the sunglasses with cat's-eye frames that she wears in the Artforum photograph. "They were supposed to refer to Martha Mitchell," she says, referring to the wife of Richard Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell. "In 1974 everything about Watergate was coming out, and Martha was doing a lot of the talking. They couldn't shut her up, so she became some sort of role model for me." Benglis wanted to uncover awkward truths.

As she saw it, American art in the seventies was still a "heroic, macho, sexist game." Was Benglis willing to play? Her gargantuan dildo answered that question and others too. How much respect did she feel for the New York art world's ideal of calm gray decorum? Not much. Was she fully committed to abstract form? It seemed not. Mainly, her dildo gave a measure of her ambition. If American art was a "macho, sexist game," she would play it aggressively. Spreading latex in the floor in uncontained pools, she impersonated the pissing, ejaculating Jackson Pollock of legend. Thickening her material, dying it with Day-Glo colors, she made big layered sculptures that looked like heaps of shiny dung left on gallery floors by cartoon creatures. She was messing about with sticky stuff, as children do in the first years of their lives, before gender is fully settled. Macho games became infantile fun.

Next she built armatures out from the gallery wall and covered them with massive slatherings of polyurethane foam. Solidifying as it slid toward the floor, the foam assumed shapes that whispered of bat wings, Spanish moss dripping from branches, and slithery reptilian creatures. These sculptures gave Benglis the feeling that "they were looking back at me." And they reached into the room wildly, as if the artist's flung color had evolved the power to fling itself at her, and at us. The wall pieces were like predators frozen in midleap and waiting, still alive, to complete their trajectories.

Gesturing, Benglis had conjured up responses to her own gestures. A circle had been closed and she saw no point in retracing it. She needed to "find a new form," she says. "I didn't know how to go about it. When I experimented, I had no idea of what I was doing." She pinned bunting to a wall in various patterns. She painted it. No satisfactory results appeared. Nearby stood a cluster of African sculptures. Tall and thin, they suggested that she roll her wide strips of bunting into long tubes. She did, giving the tubes skeletal support with rolls of window screening. After knotting the tubes, she dusted the knots with sparkles, painted them with brushes, sprayed them with metallic pigments. These sculptures are like torsos elongated until they have the flexibility of arms and legs.

Benglis rolled, pleated, and knotted cotton fabric, chicken wire, and sheet metal. Encrusted in plaster or cast in bronze, her sculptures resemble pieces of clothing shed in a hurry. The curviest ones evoke corsets, though they look less like devices for shaping the body than images of the body shaped by the artist's desires -- and her sense of her desirability. Intricately wrought, glistening with luxurious patinas, Benglis's bronzes are hyperresponsive to the light. They seem watchful and ravenously receptive, or somnolent, as if lost in their own voluptuous involutions. The sober objects of the Minimalists deny their own appeal, and this denial is what makes them appealing to a certain taste. Casual about properties, Benglis shapes objects that grab our attention and hold it caressingly. This frankness about the wish to seduce is what makes it difficult for the art world to be entirely at ease with her. Benglis's reputation has been erratic, yet over the seasons she has become a fixture in standard accounts of her generation.

Mocking male aggression, cavorting at the borders of taste, denouncing the boom of the eighties as empty manipulation, Benglis is audacious. Always, though, her audacity is well considered. She would never have published her self-portrait with dildo if a precedent for it had not been set by Morris's portrait of himself in helmet and chains, master of the gamut running from dominance to submission. Soon after the image appeared, he executed a series of twelve drawings that diagram in crisp black and white The Realm of the Carceral (1978), a zone where forms themselves enforce absolute control over perception and behavior.

The coercive architecture of Morris's "Realm" evolved only from the paintings of Morris's Pollock, a literalist whose art permits only one correct reading. Benglis's Pollock is playful, a supplier of liberating precedents, and her self-portrait defined her as a generous being of extravagantly versatile sexuality -- ready for anything, even a confrontation with the rigid, territorial male implied by so much New York art. Benglis never dismissed her opposition. Instead she gave its premises new birth. What had been hopelessly macho was now female -- shamelessly, and unashamedly, too.

CARTER RATCLIFF is a New York critic and poet who has published books on Andy Warhol, John Singer Sargent, Pat Steir and Robert Longo, among others.

"The Fate of a Gesture: Jackson Pollock and Postwar American Art" is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.