Lynda Benglis’ exhibition Everything Flows (1980–2013) on view at Philadelphia’s Locks Gallery (May 16–June 29, 2013) presented a wide range of works including classic metalized pleated pieces as well as her new translucent polyurethane fountains. William Corwin talks with Benglis about her early influences and what motivated her to create the work on view in Everything Flows. Concurrently, he spoke with Susan Richmond, author of Beyond Process (I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, London, 2013), which lends a critical overview of the artist’s practice.
William Corwin: I guess everyone knows your life story to a certain extent, at least your life once you arrived in New York, but people forget you’re from Louisiana, growing up in New Orleans. You spent much of your childhood and early adult life visiting Greece and you received a lot of culture through your mother, who was Greek, but did the location you actually grew up in have an influence on your artistic practice?
Lynda Benglis: We had a very good theater, and we had a college, a cow college that was an aggie school; a cowboy school—it had rodeos, a rodeo ring, and so-forth. I had a mixed background, really. When we went to some main city, culturally, it might have been when we took a vacation in Texas, Colorado, or New Mexico, my dad would take us to the jails, where Billy the Kid was jailed. There would be no sign or anything—that’s how early we were travelling to these historical sights. I had a kind of history background in a sense of Americana. My mother had gotten a degree from the Chicago Institute, by mail, which is how they used to do it, she passed; so she knew how to draw. They both had a college education, but I knew somehow that my mother was an artist and my father was a businessman, definitely a successful businessman, but like the West, he would read the same books again and again, the same stories, or watch the same movies on television because he kind of lived it—he was born in Texas and grew up in Louisiana, so he had a kind of a life that was really about that environment. And I did too…
WC: Was that environment part of you?
LB: Well no, I’m not there anymore, when I left, I really left and I became totally directed and travelled and I was looking at a larger cultural situation: my mother was very wise in that she sent me off to Greece with my grandmother very early and so we travelled for six months in France and in Greece when I was eleven. We went there by boat and came back by boat, and then later by plane; I’d been many times to Greece by the time I was in my twenties.
WC: Talk about your current exhibition in Philadelphia at the Locks Gallery, Everything Flows: it’s work from 1980–2013, why did you choose that body of work and period in particular. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the pleated pieces.
LB: I think I could say that the gesture, whether it’s inherently in the material, I expose the gesture because of the pro-perceptive feelings I have. The muscular feelings that one has; the nerve endings, the kind of push-and-pull that happens, the really physical pulling of form, or pouring happens because I really wanted to put life into the material, and with that kind of gesturing the viewer is actively involved.
WC: The pleated pieces are referential to fans. One thinks of an artist like Ellen Phelan and her early fan sculptures which were a monumentalizing of a very intimate and feminine form of communication and expression. How would you assess the meaning of that object? Why do you choose the fan as a form source?
LB: It was something you could do with a plane, you could fold a plane, and this is something that all schoolchildren do: boys do airplanes; girls do fans. I don’t think it was any conscious action on my part to make a statement about it, but I did want to use the gold leaf, and when you fold the fan, one side lights the other side. So it has a nice reflection. The light, and the change of light, was a goal because one side might be in shadow.
WC: How would you characterize the metamorphosis of the ephemeral pleated paper pieces into permanent metal forms?
LB: The whole idea of metalizing wasn’t new, but in art it hadn’t been used—there was an artist in Portland who introduced me to it, he was making surfaces with metalizing. For him it was another kind of paint, for me it was freezing a material so I could make a form. I did that first with plaster or sculptmetal, and then I would do the metalizing.
With my work, I think the process is a very important element, but I think that I’m always making images—images that are self-referential. The knots could have been portraits of people, because often people recognized themselves in the gestures that I would make, and I would name them after them. I also think that the psychological referents in the work that I do is also a reference to the physicality of the viewer in relationship to gravity, and the relationship to the viewer if the piece is on the wall. The scope of vision that’s beyond 30 degrees; if you look at something closely and then back off, the object itself takes in the viewer’s scope of vision.
WC: Well, gravity brings us to the fountains…They are the most recent works in Everything Flows. When did you start making the fountains?
LB: I had the idea to make the fountains in the early eighties, and I did the World’s Fair fountain [1984, New Orleans], and that was really the first, a 17 ½ foot cantilever. I really hadn’t used the polyurethane, and wanted to use the polyurethane in the round. That fountain was an ambitious undertaking. I followed it up with a series of smaller fountains—it had been a commission, but I’d had the idea anyway, I would have done it anyway, and have placed them around in different locations as well.
WC: The pieces that are in the current show are multi-level, semi-transparent forms. Has there been any massive formalistic shift in the base object that you’ve been working with for almost thirty years?
LB: The material is the same, but the process of drawing is like comparing pencil to charcoal or to paint. If you use it in a linear way instead of a physical pouring way then it’s a different kind of process and you get a different result—the process is very differently rendered.
WC: What’s the difference?
LB: One [is] through pressure, the other through pouring, so you have two very different things going on. With these images, I’m really interested in making a new form. I think I’ve done that with my work—these kinds of forms were never seen in the context of the material when I first made them.
In a sense, I was inventing a new vocabulary, which really had to do with organic forms. I was also interested in various surfaces, and I varied those so they looked different, but essentially the processes are all related in one way [or] the other and definitely tied to the material.
WC: The colors are incredible and bright…
LB: This is a polyurethane that‘s translucent, which is very different from acrylic, or any other kind of cast plastics because it’s important for me to have that quality, the life in the material, the light. One particular fountain, the pink fountain, I’m calling it A Pink Lady (For Asha), it’s a pink that you see in India (Diana Vreeland once said that this pink is the navy blue of India). So I was thinking about this pink for a long time because it’s a pink that is rarely seen in nature, but you see it in flowers; you see it in rhododendrons, azaleas, in lilies, [and] sometimes people wear the pink. But it’s not a pink that you think of as the pink of the tongue or the pink of the blood, it’s not a pink that appears on or in the body. It is the kind of decorative pink, and the pink really works in the [fountain] form, it gives life to the form. I’ve only used the pink and the black and the orange as colors because somehow those have a reference to nature and life, and they don’t look altogether synthesized—it looks very natural in these forms.
WC: Who is Asha?
LB: Asha is a friend and the sister of Anand Sarabhai who was my mate for over thirty-five years.
WC: And the show is dedicated to him?
LB: He was a scientist who happened to have contacted me in the mid-70’s and I didn’t really get to go to India until the last-part of the 70’s, early 80’s. We met each other thirty-five years ago, and we became close after I visited, and he visited me back-and-forth and I visited him. We were partners in most of the things we did.
WC: Did you collaborate in art projects?
LB: Oh yes, he collaborated with a lot of artists that he invited to India, and the topic he had pleasure in was suggesting other materials to look at [and] because he loved India so much, he showed them the different contexts in which they could work. So I did a lot of things just because he would show me the streets of India and I would gather materials and do a different kind of fan, for example.
WC: What are you planning for the future?
LB: I’m really wanting to do some more fountains and I’m doing some ceramic works in New Mexico, large ceramic extruded works that are painted [and] fired with different glazes. …I’m also doing some paper works that are stretched around wire, and I’m painting these. All these projects involve color related to form, and they all have a sense of surface and skin, all of them are kind of bodies.
The paper projects are more-or-less reliefs, although they are in-the-round too and hang on the wall. They’re like drum skins, like animal skins that visually take on the sensitivity and texture of the wire itself. It’s like making a painting and drawing of the form underneath. They’re fun, and also very complicated; no two look alike.
WC: Do you feel sculpture has to address the human form?
LB: I must feel that, if it’s not the human form, it’s having to do with [the] excitement of the mind and the eye and asking the question what kind of animal is it? Is the form somehow recognizable the way you could recognize clouds: finding form and description in abstraction.
In other words, the human condition is that which we immediately recognize as the matter or gestalt of an image and adapt it to our visions so that we can process it in different ways.
WC: No matter how abstract a sculptor is, they almost always return to the human form. Do you think that’s just the state of the discipline of sculpture?
LB: Definitely we tend to reflect what we know, I don’t know that it’s always conscious. I think it comes back to what we feel. [S]ometimes you process something with one leg or two legs; maybe it has a head, maybe it’s just a torso; maybe neither of the two. We all want to possess or identify something in order to perceive it. We have to name it.
WC: By possessing the actions of pouring or projecting a form or freezing a form, when did it occur to you that you wanted to deal with those two very basic gestures?
LB: I think the feeling of “wrassling” with my sheets in bed—the physicality of being involved with the outside, of skin, to reach out and process, was innate. I can remember as a little kid wanting to make igloos out of my blankets, because I felt, when I was an infant probably, felt very comfortable under the covers. Children always make little houses with covers and in a sense process the feeling of security that they must have had in the womb. I think probably the idea of processing that kind of cover, that warmth, the relationship with an image is a physical one with me, and usually has to be. How do I make a reality that’s different from myself but having to do with a feeling that I’ve felt before. It’s universal; we do want to process, we do want to identify with outside things and images, and we do want to create. Creation is nothing more than a repetition of feelings we have historically experienced.
WC: Well there’s that saying, “feeling comfortable in one’s own skin.” Do you feel comfortable in your own skin?
LB: No, that’s probably why I continue to process information, the one that’s always searching…I love to feel uncomfortable, how is that? I like that feeling of research and going out, being in the unknown. I’m definitely a wanderer and an explorer.
Susan Richmond on Lynda Benglis
WC: You begin your book, Beyond Process by defining Lynda Benglis as an artist who hasn’t fit the mold, so can we start by defining our parameters. What, very loosely, is a typical artist who does [fit the mold]?
SR: I think that the perception is that with a typical artist there’s a sustained approach that is developed: a “style” or a cohesive body of work. If you look at Benglis’ work, there are common strands that run through it, but the initial perception, formally or visually is that there is this willfulness in that she’s all over the place with her materials and her processes—there is this initial impression that she doesn’t stay the course. Further investigation of her practice does draw out some common strains. The problem with the monograph focusing on the single artist is that you write it with the assumption that there’s going to be a coherent narrative and you need to “clean up” the practice in order to make it cohere to a small set of ideas. I didn’t want to do that—I don’t attempt to account for everything that she’s done—and that’s another assumption when you focus on a single artist is that you’re going to write the definitive study of everything, and I just wasn’t interested in doing that. I picked work that interested me, and I picked bodies of work that allowed me to investigate certain tendencies. The book really focuses on the first decade of her career, the last chapter is a fast–forward through what she’s done since the 80s and then addresses some of the problems critics had with her work; her interest in the decorative and her ongoing interest in aesthetics during a time period when visual aesthetics were taking a backseat to other practices.
One of the things that have always interested me about her work is the way that other people have written about it. They’re absolutely fascinated by her work but they have reservations; it’s interesting, but it’s kind of vulgar, it’s pretty but it’s also sort of tacky. I like that ambiguity about her work. I like a work that can be both pretty and distasteful: beautiful and ugly at the same time.
WC: You set up this framework to assess the work by series or piece-by-piece, or as you said, by certain works you personally found interesting. Within this context (and we have to talk about the Artforum ad) do you feel you can relate the Porsche ad, the Betty Grable ad, and then the dildo image, to Benglis’ sculpture practice?
SR: There’s a sensibility there, an obvious playfulness going on with those images. I think those images demonstrate a pretty clear engagement with the art politics of the time. Those images are a response by Benglis to what her colleagues were doing, both artistically, and also how they were “self-fashioning” and creating personas. In the images and the artwork that Benglis was producing she was very aware of what was going on—she’s very open to what her colleagues and peers are doing and responding and taking it in her own direction.
The self-images created a dialogue with the art world; there’s a similar dialogue going on in her sculptural practices. The other way in which they relate is just the willingness to be outrageous and experimental, and a kind of fearlessness as well. I think that’s really worked in her favor in terms of her material and formal experiments. As much as I think she engages with her peers, she doesn’t conform.
WC: I noticed you mentioned that she’d become friends and was influenced by Barnett Newman, could you elaborate on that?
SR: She met him and she socialized with him and his wife. My impression is that Barnett Newman was an incredibly open and generous artist. He was someone who influenced not only Lynda Benglis, but other artists of her generation, he was someone who liked to talk about art-talk about not only his own art but other people’s art. I think that there was a formal sensibility that the “zips” that he did, and the sculptural pieces (I think she had the opportunity to see some of the thin sculptural pieces of his) sparked her imagination and eventually lead her into doing those totemic relief sculptures that then morphed into the knots she started to do, the ones that were in the Clocktower show.
WC: Do you think you can categorize her work as feminist? You address the “feminist problematic,” and I know that Lynda is both comfortable with the label “feminist artist” but also likes to avoid being categorized.
SR: She doesn’t self-identify as a feminist artist, she didn’t set out to produce work that was presenting some kind of feminist statement, but what really interested me is that she was responding to, and was caught up in the sexual politics of the time–period, and even if she wasn’t necessarily producing work that was coming from a feminist perspective, she was still producing pieces that were about the body and were caught up in sexual and bodily sensations. It allowed for a feminist reading without declaring that she is a feminist artist.
She always seems to be engaging with the mainstream art world or art scene of any given time even as she’s developing her own body of work. She’s someone who’s never been directly involved with feminism, but has always been aware that the art world has a very machismo scene, particularly out in LA, that’s where she first came up against this “boys club.”
WC: In relation to the particularly virulent strain of machismo associated with the Abstract Expressionists, she did constantly find herself being critically tied to Pollock because of her method.
Your book is titled Beyond Process, do you think she specifically embodies the creation of her work within the finished product? That’s something that she’s always come up against and was the typical mindset during her early career.
SR: Process is obviously central to her work, but there are other ways in which the work still needs to be talked about. The photographic documentation of her making some of those early latex pours, that documentation has overshadowed the ways in which we now relate to those works. We see them in terms of the artist pouring the pieces rather than other associations, other sensory responses [that] we have to the work, or metaphorical readings in terms of illusions of content. I went back and looked at how critics responded to the work. Of course most of them do bring up the connection to Pollock, but they also talk about other sensations: what is it like to literally stand in front of these works, what are the formal readings that come out of them. I feel that art historians always seem to come back to the documentation of her making the pieces, and they talk about performative aspects of it, and that’s been exhausted. My argument is she’s not a performance artist, she wasn’t ever really interested in having that aspect of the process be the main element of the work, and it was more or less fortuitous that these photographs circulated.
WC: Have you asked her?
SR: She tends to agree with me, or I tend to agree with her. At this point I’m not sure which way that goes! I’ve been a little wary of getting confirmation, I’ve tried to keep this my interpretation of the work. The whole performative approach does a disservice to the body of work if we’re always bringing it back to the performing body, the artist’s body.
WC: Were the critics of the time looking for a “girl Pollock,” was that their agenda?
SR: Perhaps, I think Helen Frankenthaler was the “girl Pollock.” I’m wondering if down the line someone will push that connection because I feel Benglis’ work bears a closer affinity to Frankenthaler paintings, and even her practice of pouring the paint out of the cans onto her canvasses, which bears a closer resemblance if you want to talk about similarities in process. There was a whole moment in the late sixties when Robert Morris is reclaiming Pollock’s technique and it’s centrality, and there’s a whole group of artists who are working in that tendency. Lynda and Eva Hesse are the two women that were singled out, and then you have the whole burgeoning feminist movement. I think to some degree you’re right that there was a confluence of interest and events in the late 60s early 70s that made it ripe for Benglis to take the stage as the “girl Pollock.”
WC: And the new work for her current exhibition, the fountains?
SR: In some respects the fountains hearken back to some of the polyurethane installations she was doing in the early 70s. Like a lot of that early work, the fountains continue that contradictory formal affect (which those polyurethane installations generated), which is there’s something incredibly graceful about them, there’s also a grotesqueness to them, lyrical and vulgar in their materiality. Then there’s the whole element of moving water added to them that really literalizes the impression of gesture and spontaneity that the early pieces imply. Benglis has always been interested in producing objects and forms that the viewer responds to as both a surface effect and also an internal bodily response. She’s always taken on monumental artistic practices, but turns them on their ear. She’s producing these forms that are maybe, not anti-monumental, but there’s something about her fountain forms that undercut the monumentality, formality, and decorum of the history of fountain making.
Susan Richmond is Associate Professor of Art History in the School of Art & Design at Georgia State University. Her research and teaching focuses on questions of gender, sexuality and class in modern and contemporary U.S. art and visual culture. She is the author of Lynda Benglis: Beyond Process (I.B. Tauris Press, 2013).
William Corwin is a sculptor and writer based in New York. He has exhibited at The Clocktower Gallery in New York and the George and Jorgen Gallery in London. In the fall 2013 he will exhibit his first public sculpture in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, St. George; a collaboration with urban theorist Neil Greenburg. He writes regularly for Frieze Magazine and The Brooklyn Rail, has written for BOMB Magazine, and with Alex Ross, will guest edit the September/October issue of ArtPapers Magazine. Corwin is curating the first historical survey exhibition (in the UK) of Brooklyn artists at the &Model Gallery in Leeds in December 2013.