Lynda Benglis - Biography and Legacy
American Sculptor, Painter, Conceptual and Performance Artist
Lake Charles, Louisiana
Biography of Lynda Benglis
The eldest of five children, Lynda Benglis was born into a Greek-American family and raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her mother was the daughter of a preacher from Mississippi. Her father ran a business selling building materials, an early influence on her work: "I'm a real fan of surfaces. My father ... had samples of colors and plastics and laminates and woods in his car. I was always very interested."
In 1964, she received a BFA from Newcomb College, New Orleans, and she subsequently became a teacher at Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. At this time she married her first husband, art historian Michael Kampen, whom she describes as "the only good-looking graduate-school guy at a girls' school." The marriage lasted only a matter of months and ended with Benglis throwing a brick at his car. Very soon afterward she moved to New York, where she continues to live and work.
Benglis went to study painting under abstract artist Reuben Tam at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. It was here that she met Gordon Hart, a Scottish painter whom she would later marry. She would later say that she only married Hart to help him avoid the draft. During her time at art school, she met budding artists Frank Stella, Bridget Riley, and Barnett Newman.
Despite her training in painting and her frequent use of paint as a material in her work, she soon moved away from a traditional canvas-based approach and started to make a series of sculptural works in various media. Her work was first exhibited at the influential Bykert Gallery in New York in 1968, where she had been working as an assistant to the gallery's owner, Klaus Kertess. Her first solo show was exhibited by the Paula Cooper Gallery, the first gallery to open in New York's SoHo district. Paula Cooper subsequently represented her for several years.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Benglis' experimentations with a range of media and art forms began to receive widespread notice. She says of herself, "I think I thrived in the New York scene. When I arrived pop art was peaking and pop art had a lot of irony and took on a kind of irony about the artists themselves, they were not shy ... they mocked the material which is art. So when I was in the art world, at a very young age, I saw that I didn't want to think just one way. That I wanted to ask many questions within the context of the materials that I use, and I continue to do that." She freed paint from canvas, pouring it directly onto the floor. In 1970, Life magazine ran a double-page spread on her which compared her process to that of Jackson Pollock, cementing her growing reputation.
Pop art and Minimalism were beginning to dominate the art scene. Among the older and more established artists who were supportive of her work, were the Minimalist Carl Andre and Andy Warhol. Warhol asked her to appear naked in one of his films. She refused. Benglis was among the women artists who noticed a male hegemony that was defining artistic practice, and permitting the use of certain materials considered masculine (stone, bricks, clay, steel, paint, etc.) while forbidding others. She sought to undermine this through her alternative use of materials that ran against the grain, and through her presentation of herself as a work of art.
In spite of this, Benglis and her work have a complex relationship with feminism. She is the author of one of the most controversial images in the history of feminist art. When Robert Morris, an artist with whom she had worked collaboratively and in dialogue, placed an advertisement in Artforum magazine depicting himself in S&M gear, she soon replied with her own advertisement in the magazine in November 1974. She filled the spread with a confrontational image of herself wearing nothing but a pair of sunglasses and holding an oversized dildo (Robert Morris helped her pick it out). The image continues to spark conversation on gender bias in the art world; in the 1970s, it provoked a range of reactions from humor to outrage, and raised questions about persistent sexism in New York art circles, the role of pornography in contemporary life, and what it meant to be a feminist. To some, the image was a brave protest against the unequal treatment of women. To others, the artist's hyper-sexualized nudity perpetuated the very problem she sought to confront. The image itself provided no easy answers or helpful solutions.
Despite being predominantly based in New York, she also traveled the world, spending time at her grandparents' house on the Greek island of Megisti, which she now owns. She also became acquainted with New Mexico, and has two studios in the desert outside Santa Fe. She continues to be a keen traveler, saying that "travel is when I can relax."
In 1979, she traveled to Ahmedabad, India, where she was the artist-in-residence for a well-known family who lived in a door-less house designed by Le Corbusier. Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Morris had both previously held the position, and had recommended her. It was on this trip that she met her life partner Anand Sarabhai, her host's son. Sarabhai died in 2003, an event which affected her and her work deeply. Talking about some of her mid-2000s ceramic sculptures, she says "there was a lot of black in the beginning because I lost my partner of over 30 years, Anand Sarabhai."
Benglis continues to practice as an artist today, and the variety of her work is testament to the current pluralism of artistic styles which was born in the 1970s, and which she herself helped to create. Elisabeth Lebovici argues that Benglis wants to avoid being pigeon-holed, and consequently pursues "an extraordinary undermining operation", both of her own work and of dominant trends in whatever period she is working in. This creative freedom has allowed her to create such recent works as her 2013 Jicarilla series in semi-glazed ceramics and Pi Tangerine in 2009, a ball of urethane dyed with orange pigment.
The Legacy of Lynda Benglis
Until recently, Lynda Benglis' work received relatively little critical notice and surprisingly few large solo exhibitions. In recent years, however, several notable institutions have exhibited her work. Retrospectives have been held at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (2009), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2011) and the Hepworth Wakefield, West Yorkshire (2015). Her work has also been included in the seminal 2007 exhibition, "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" at MOCA, Los Angeles.
Her influence on a younger generation of artists is also becoming more evident and is now fairly well documented. For example, the photographer Cindy Sherman has claimed that seeing Benglis' Artforum advertisement constituted "one of the most pivotal moments of my career." As Laura Hoptman, a curator at MoMA puts it, "anybody who is using that bodily biomorphism is Benglis. Anybody who is being very out with her sexuality is Benglis."