Lynda Benglis: A Sculpture Survey, 1969-2004
Cheim & Read until April 3
547 W. 25th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-242-7727
Mia Westerlund Roosen: Namesake
Lennon, Weinberg, Inc. until April 3
560 Broadway, Suite 308, at Prince Street, 212-941-0012
Once the enfant terrible of the New York School, Lynda Benglis is now one of the grande dames of American sculpture. But she has never lost her essential brashness. A compact survey of her work since 1967, now at Cheim & Read, shows her to be a truly original force, at once deeply serious in her explorations of form and material and a fearless vulgarian.
Ms. Benglis is something of a changeling, even at times a hermaphrodite. Her work oscillates between exquisite form consciousness and consummate poor taste – just as, in another direction, it does between solid and flux. She was part of the generation that put process above object, yet she is clearly a maker of things, reveling in the tactility and tangiblity of her creations.
Her career, as presented here, is bookended by phalluses (and this from so feminist an artist). The earliest work, “Embryo II” (1967), is a three-foot-long pole encrusted with weird accretions of purified, pigmented beeswax and damar resin. In the tradition of Giacometti’s “Disagreeable Object,” it is at once compelling and yukky. The latest work, from this year and installed in the gallery’s chapel-like project space, is a 13-and-a-half-foot-high hanging lampshade, with bulbous curves. Titled “Bikini Incandescent Column,” the piece puns the feminine garment and the island of atom-bomb fame in a collision – typical of this artist – of the sexual and the political.
The phallus as political gesture will always be conflated with Ms. Benglis’s name thanks to her notorious stunt, in November 1974, of placing in Artforum an advertisement in which she posed naked, greased up in the porno style of that era, and sporting a dildo. Ostensibly announcing a show at the Paula Cooper Gallery, this act – which caused great scandal at the time, bitterly dividing the editors of the journal, for instance – presaged a period of performance and video in Ms. Benglis’s career.
None of this work is represented in this survey, but issues of sexuality and gender are never entirely absent from Ms. Benglis’s concerns. In the late 1960s, she pioneered a hybrid form between painting and sculpture, which entailed congealed puddles of brightly pigmented polyurethane foam. These would be nonchalantly deposited on the floor, looking as if they were still oozing forth, or heaped in a corner, as in “Quartered Meteor” (1969).
Such works were much of their time in terms of the prevailing obsession with process and penchant for un-arty (industrial) materials, but Ms. Benglis subverted the severe rationalism of male-dominated minimal art with metaphorical intimations of nature and anatomy. Her embrace of the fluid and the decentered was a counterpoint to her mock-worship of the phallus.
These puddle pieces, rooted as they may have seemed in an anti-object, process-driven aesthetic, developed into monumental sculptural installations whose poured forms solidified into floating entities of ambiguous weight. These suggested that, despite Ms. Benglis’s allegiances to the avant-garde, a baroque sensibility – a love of the conceit and deceit of frozen gestures, the solid object as metaphor of movement – is her defining characteristic.
The artist’s abstract “knots” of the 1970s approach figuration, with limb-like forms writhing to and fro. Later works explore the artist’s Greek heritage, with references to caryatids and to carved drapery. But no one would accuse her of giving in to classical refinement – “Summer Dreams” (2003), a shiny bronze fountain made from orgiastic heaps of gnarled, pummeled matter, is truly an exercise in the grotesque.
Mia Westerlund Roosen has, in more ladylike manner, followed a similar career trajectory to Lynda Benglis. She, too, started out steeped in the aesthetics of process and installation. Inspired by the women’s movement, she explored sexual and erotic content in pared down abstraction. Both women’s work relate, also, to the nebulous, erogenous forms of Louise Bourgeois.
Ms. Roosen’s major contribution so far has been in site-specific works, often temporary, such as those in her widely acknowledged outdoor exhibition at Storm King in 1994. Ms. Benglis, too, has made such pieces – carved brick works in India that I have only studied in photographs but that seem to represent a departure in her work and a close point of formal similarity with Ms. Roosen’s elephantine, robust awkwardness. Where Ms. Benglis is a priestess of volume, however, Ms. Roosen serves at the altar of mass. Her sensibility is genuinely monumental.
Still, she is more than capable of singular statuary, as six new sculptures at Lennon, Weinberg and two pieces at the Invitational at the American Academy (reviewed in these pages last week) show. These pieces are at once tough and vulnerable, quirky and strident, personal and aloof. This string of dichotomies reflects, in a way, their facture, which also reconciles a more fundamental sculptural duality, that between carving and modeling, (processes often posited as temperamental opposites) for her concrete sculptures are cast in moulds but their surfaces are worked by hand. .
Each piece in the Lennon, Weinberg show is named for a famous historical or mythological woman. The most striking is “Clio” (2003). The Muse of History is presented as a triad of pulsating balls on cloven feet from whose energized surfaces little pipes protrude like the nails in an African carving. In her tenderness and absurdity, Clio looks like a cross between a baby elephant and a bride of Ubu (as drawn by his creator, Alfred Jarry).
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, March 18, 2004print