"Feminism has had a much greater influence on art than we think," a friend told me recently at The New Museum's Lynda Benglis show (through June 19). Her comment was prompted by how fresh some of the 40-plus-years-old work looked, though I wondered if there was a sufficiently consistent aesthetic to feminist art-making to draw such a conclusion. After all, what does feminist art look like?
Even the conventional examples—bloody tampon art, labial flowers and bound or mutilated bodies—reveal commonalities. Like many contemporary artists' work—Urs Fischer, Rachel Whiteread and Tino Sehgal to name the best known—feminist art is intimately concerned with its relationship to the body. This persistent interest figures throughout the Benglis exhibition.
Iconic as they are, I have a hard time seeing feminist phalluses making a comeback. Benglis has her share of happy metal dildos ("Smile," 1974) and a giant dog vagina video ("The Amazing Bow-Wow," 1976), but New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni includes these ephemera in the last room of the exhibition, a smart curatorial decision. Had I seen these images first I'm certain they would have tainted my experience of the subtler work on view.
The exhibition begins in the dark: a series of wall-mounted foam sculptures glow under black lights in the first room ("Phantom," 1971). This is easy work—the poured wave-like forms look like they belong in a funhouse—but I like the residual image left in the mind's eye. It provides swift entry into the more difficult work on view, like adjacent rooms' totems made of paraffin and wood, and two wall-mounted plaster sticks that resemble giant party shakers. As the history books tell it, these works sought to question traditional definitions of the feminine, though some of that reading is lost today.
More poured foam pieces are arranged on the floor and against the walls nearby, often in very bright colors. Benglis is well known for these sculptures, and their politicization makes them interesting. The medium isn't particularly versatile; a lot of abstract poured forms I've seen over the last ten years look vaguely like hers. These works are much more challenging as a female artist's aggressive use of sensuality—a woman expressing too much sexuality still makes most viewers uncomfortable.
The show repeatedly demonstrates that Benglis' boldest work is her strongest. In a far room, "Primary Structures" (1975), an installation made up of aluminum Roman pillars set on a vibrant velvet blue carpet, reveals her to be an unsung master of material combination. In another work, a loud plastic weave forms a peacock fan. Both pieces are remarkable for their ability to make viewers want to touch them.
Benglis's most controversial work, an ad she took out in ArtForum in which she appears naked, dildo in hand, sits in a vitrine in the final room. Many critics hated it in when it was published in 1974—as the story goes, her partner Robert Morris took out a similar ad in butch, but no one cared. Like much of the ephemera, this seems like a break from the show's more physically inviting sculptural work, though both types operate more similarly than is immediately apparent. The wildly visually arresting images, like their sculptural companions, leave a visual imprint nearly impossible
(images courtesy the artist, Cheim & Read)