“I wasn’t breaking away from painting but trying to redefine what it was.”
Asked to summarize her artistic ambitions in the 1960s, Lynda Benglis replied, “I wasn’t breaking away from painting but trying to redefine what it was.” She was raised in Louisiana and moved to New York in 1964, where she trained as a painter in the Abstract Expressionist vein. Benglis admired the gestural style of that older generation of artists, but quickly began to adapt their methods to more extravagant ends. Employing a broad range of materials in acid hues, her best-known works record the behavior of a fluid substance in action. Alongside peers like Eva Hesse, Alan Saret, and Richard Serra, she allowed the process of making to dictate the shape of her finished works, wielding pliant matter that “can and will take its own form.”
Benglis invented a new format with her celebrated “pours,” which resembled paintings but came off the wall to occupy the space of sculpture. In Blatt and other similar works from 1969, she extended Jackson Pollock’s famed drip technique into three dimensions, spilling liquid rubber directly onto the floor. (A photographer for Life magazine once captured Benglis in mid-pour, lunging forward to sling pigmented latex straight from the can.) Blatt’s dayglo swirls retain a look of barely arrested motion, their colors gelled into a kind of psychedelic carpet. Rejecting vertical orientation—as well as canvas, stretcher, and brush—the “pours” push conventions of easel painting to the point of near collapse.
Another viscous material is tested in Benglis’s wax reliefs of the late 1960s. In Embryo II (1967–76), layers of molten beeswax cling to a Masonite board, hardened into ridges and furrows in a spectrum of pastel hues. This pursuit of what the artist called “the frozen gesture” continues in her fabric knots—silvered coils of cotton bunting wrapped around a wire armature. Victor (1974) gleams with metallic paint, and other knots in the series are flecked with glitter and bright acrylic. That cosmetic finish—all spangle and flash—recalls the decorative arts, and mars pure abstraction with jarring materials that connote the lowbrow and the feminine.
Benglis’s interest in gendered stereotypes extends to her pioneering videos. Works like Female Sensibility and Now (1973) play freely with arousal and submission, and questioned the role of the woman artist at the height of the feminist movement. More provocative still were the racy self-portraits she staged in the early 1970s: advertisements and gallery announcements in which she posed like a pinup or porn star. These “sexual mockeries,” as Benglis called them, satirized “the art-star system, and the way artists use themselves, their persona, to sell the work.”
Taylor Walsh, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2016
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women’s Fund.