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Monthly Archives: February 2013

Judith Tannenbaum on the Work of Lynda Benglis

Leaded Moss Knot, 1992

Leaded Moss Knot, 1992

In The New York Times review of “Lynda Benglis”, a traveling retrospective of 40 years of the artist’s work at the New Museum, Benglis is introduced as the artist who one-upped Jackson Pollock’s action paintings in the 1960s. Describing her as a second generation abstract expressionist or next level Pollock helps portray Benglis as a painter, which she does consider herself first and foremost, but not how very differently and extensively she works in other mediums as a sculptor and performance artist. In contrast to Pollock, Benglis is compelled more by a flagrant rebelliousness against mainstream ideas about who an artist should be, which has proven to be highly provisional in terms of her art-making and the way she has negotiated her career. The artist, at 71 now, enjoys a sprawling existence in and outside of the contemporary art world, testing and manipulating materials as a painter and sculptor in home/studios in New York City and East Hampton, the high desert outside Santa Fe, Kastelorizo, Greece, and Ahmedabad, India.

Since the beginning of her career, Benglis has successively experimented with a wide variety of materials, from the 1960s to 80s, for example: wax, latex, polyurethane foam, phosphorescent pigment, bronze, aluminum; and in the 1990s and 2000s: paper, glass, ceramics, and stainless steel. Concurrently, she has produced videos, Polaroids, and other media interventions, including several works in collaboration with Robert Morris, documenting her process and involving staged photography as pointed critiques on sexual identity, power, and other gender-related issues. Benglis is sensitive to the materials she uses; meaning, to exploit a material’s properties, she will not only temper its chemistry, but will respond to the natural proclivities of it to flow, stretch, bend, harden, and generally become. Her twisted sculptures in clay are perfect examples of her responsiveness to materiality, or in other words, her ability to create new forms with a difficult material. Ceramics require a multitude of steps involving a precise amount of mixing, painting, and cooking, which Benglis has mastered over the last 20 years. The heavy, counterbalanced loops and arches of her ceramics are not necessarily what clay wants to do, but what she makes it do.

I had several questions regarding Benglis’ retrospective and her ceramic works which Judith Tannenbaum, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, who helped organize “Lynda Benglis”, generously agreed to answer:

Phantom, 1971

Phantom, 1971

AK: It must have been difficult for the curators to decide what work to include and what to omit in the retrospective. I understand there was an initial decision to focus on Benglis’ formal work rather than her video and photography. I suppose from then on, the challenge was to choose a sampling of works from each of the materials she has used to represent her most significant contributions to painting and sculpture. Are there any works that you wish had been included but weren’t?

JT: The exhibition was initiated by the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin but curators from four other venues—Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven), Le Consortium (Dijon), RISD Museum (Providence), and New Museum (New York)—chose a core group of objects that traveled to all of the museums. It was difficult to decide because Benglis’ work has been so prolific and diverse, but at the same time there was consensus among the curators, while also considering the limitations of space and budget. All of the venues except Dijon presented examples of Benglis’ video, photography, and printed ephemera, but the selections varied from museum to museum. RISD and the New Museum (as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which was added to the tour after New York) were fortunate to include “Phantom”, the only one of six multi-part poured polyurethane foam installations Benglis made in 1971 to survive. In spite of complex technical requirements, additional shipping, and conservation, I felt it was very important to include this large glow-in-the-dark sculpture, which became the show-stopper for visitors. I also thought that Benglis’ glass and ceramics should be given more attention as well as her video and photography. It was gratifying to be able to add a number of these works at RISD.

AK: Would you say that over the course of her career, Benglis has moved away from synthetic materials in favor of traditional ones? She continues to use foam, of course, but it seems that the bulk of her work in recent years is composed of metals, ceramics, glass, and paper. I also have a clip of her saying that she could only create six of the poured polyurethane installations—that though she was commissioned to produce more, she couldn’t force herself to continue pushing herself in an area she felt she had fully explored. Do traditional materials provide her an opportunity to go deeper into process, in that, she can also play-off of traditional ways of making?

Anagma 5, 1995

Anagma 5, 1995

JT: I don’t think I’d make a distinction. Early on she did experiment with a number of materials that had not been associated with fine art—pouring latex or foam on the floor, and applying glitter onto plaster and cotton bunting for example. But she was also making those amazing lozenge-shaped paintings built up with layers and layers of wax, a material that goes back to the encaustic artworks of ancient Egypt. The important thing is how Benglis takes advantage of the particular qualities of a material to create work that is distinctly her own. There’s almost always a sense of immediacy and tactility no matter what the object is made of.

AK: Where did Benglis learn ceramics and is she interested in a particular tradition?

JT: Benglis took ceramics classes (as well as painting and philosophy) when she was at Newcomb College, which was the women’s school associated with Tulane University in New Orleans. Newcomb, in fact, is very well known for Arts and Crafts pottery produced there in the early 20th century. But I don’t know what Benglis’ ceramics looked like then—if she made functional vessels on the wheel or more purely sculptural forms. Most of the ceramics she made in the 1990s were based on extruded tubes of clay that she twisted and manipulated into coiled forms before applying colored glaze. The pliability and hands-on quality of clay seems perfect for her—the way it can either slump over or rise up and defy gravity. One can think back to the series of metallic knots she did in the 70s, but with clay the connection between gesture and form is even more immediate.

AK: In the late 1990s, Benglis created an outdoor work, titled “Migrating Pedimarks”, inspired by her experience of an earthquake in Marseille, in which she saw roof tiles cascade into the sea. She described the process as akin to “drawing” with cut slabs of clay—she had assistants hand her pieces of clay which she threw onto a form and cast in bonze. How often does Benglis work on-site or site-specifically now?

JT: Since the 80s, Benglis has created several permanent works for particular locations including a very large textile for the Atlanta airport, and “Chimera”, a monumental carved brick elephantine form and double-headed snake that wraps around a tree in Ahmedabad. More recently, she has focused on outdoor fountains, an interest that goes back to a commission for the Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans in 1984. Reviving that arching wavelike form, Benglis installed a large four-part bronze fountain, “North South East West”, in the gardens of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, when her retrospective opened there in 2009. It will remain there for ten years.

Migrating Pedmarks, 1998

Migrating Pedmarks, 1998

AK: Recently there has been a revival of performance art and rather obstreperous installation art, (I am referring to “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present” at MoMA, “Maurizio Cattelan: All” at the Guggenheim, and “Urs Fischer: Marguerite de Ponty” and “Carsten Höller: Experience” at the New Museum) which makes me think that Benglis’ recent works are rebellious in the way that her neon latex and DayGlo foam installations were in the 60s and 70s, and neither are her new works “un-monumental” as in the 2008 exhibition at the New Museum—they are lasting. Does Benglis still have an agenda to subvert current trends in the art world, or would you say her work now is simply a means of personal exploration?

Zita, from the Sparkle Knot series, 1972

Zita, from the Sparkle Knot series, 1972

JT: I agree that in her early years Benglis consciously challenged existing traditions—subverting them or taking them in a new direction. Just the idea of using color so prodigiously in the late-60s and 70s when minimalism and conceptualism took center stage can be considered an act of rebellion. And her preference for glitter in the “Sparkle Knot” series must have been viewed as purely decorative and feminine—not to be taken seriously. I titled my essay “Lynda Benglis: Clandestine Performer” for the book published by Les Presses du Reél in conjunction with the retrospective because, to me, the act of performing underlies almost all of her work. Her early work may have been ahead of its time in that respect, and perhaps it is now in sync with what’s going on. There has always been a remarkably open and uninhibited quality to her work—nothing is hidden or obscured.

AK: Lastly, can you try to describe how Benglis is inspired by nature and the different environments and cultures in which she immerses herself?

JT: Nature and culture are huge issues that are impossible to do justice to here; but perhaps a few examples will be helpful: The poured foam installations cantilevered out from the wall like “Phantom” suggest waterfalls as well as natural formations such as caves and grottos and must acknowledge the force of gravity. Recent cast resin half spheres and egglike forms seem to glow from within. In contrast, pleated metal fans and more complex wall reliefs from the 80s and early-90s recall the folds of drapery characteristic of Greek caryatids and other ancient sculpture. A number of mermaid-like plaster forms covered in sumptuous gold leaf from the late-70s have titles with Greek references—Siren, Minos, Knossos—underscoring her family heritage. As you mentioned at the outset of this interview, Benglis lives in several places and travels extensively. Her intellectual acuity joined with unedited spontaneity and intuition produces a combination that allows her to absorb the experiences of different cultures and serves her well both in art and in life.

—Ashley Booth Klein

 

JUDITH TANNENBAUM was named The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum’s first curator of contemporary art in 2000. In 2002, she became the Richard Brown Baker Curator of Contemporary Art, the Museum’s first endowed position, which she held until 2013. She recently relocated to Philadelphia but continues her connection to RISD as Adjunct Curator.

Tannenbaum has organized numerous exhibitions focusing on painting, sculpture, video, and interdisciplinary work–with a particular interest in connections between visual art and performance and relationships among fine art, craft, and design. Exhibitions and publications for RISD include Painting Air: Spencer Finch (2012); Lynda Benglis (2010); Styrofoam (2008); Beth Lipman: After You’re Gone (2008); Wunderground: Providence, 1995 to the Present (2006); Betty Woodman: Il Giardino dipinto (2005); Island Nations: New Art from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Diaspora (2004); On the Wall: Wallpaper by Contemporary Artists (2003); and Jim Isermann: Logic Rules (2000).

From 1986 to 2000, Tannenbaum served variously as curator, associate director, and interim director at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.

Pauline Vermare on the Early Work of Christer Strömholm

Tanger, Marocko, 1951 by Christer Stromholm

Tanger, Marocko, 1951 by Christer Stromholm

Pauline Vermare is a Curatorial Assistant at the International Center for Photography (ICP) and last year organized “Les Amies de Place Blanche” by Christer Strömholm, a ground breaking exhibition for the photographer whose work had never before been shown in a museum in the United States. While well-known and celebrated in his native Sweden, Strömholm (1918-2002) remains a relatively obscure figure in the United States despite his wide influence on both European and American photography. Perhaps this is due to the highly individualistic nature of his work, which transformed over his long career. Strömholm photographed an array of scenes and subjects with subtlety and restraint—never did he impose himself on what he captured with his camera a characteristic style, and so it is hard to say what makes a Strömholm photograph. Certainly his compositions are stark and his symbolism clear and strong, but these are fairly discursive, general observations.

Strömholm’s early photographs of vagabond children, abandoned objects, haunted cemeteries, and prison-like carnivals of the 1940s gave way rather suddenly to intimate, seductive portraiture of a group of lovers and friends whom he befriended when he settled in Paris in the 1950s. He photographed these marginal characters, a melange of glamorous but bohemian transsexuals, in every aspect of their lives. These are the photographs of “Les Amies de Place Blanche” (Girlfriends of Place Blanche), originally published in a book in 1983 and reissued last year commensurate with the ICP’s exhibition. Following the production of this series, Strömholm returned to Sweden to continue developing his ideas from the early 1950s in new work and to teach at Stockholm University for several years, until retiring and then dividing his time between Sweden and Provence where he kept a country home.

Here are my questions concerning Strömholm’s early work leading up to “Les Amies,” its reception then and now, and Vermare’s rich and insightful answers which place this work within the story of his personal life:

Saint Marie de la Mer, France, 1948

Saint Marie de la Mer, France, 1948

AK: I am curious about Strömholm’s work prior to “Les Amies” and what he discovered from the photographs he made until settling in Paris. Do you know what compelled him to leave Stockholm and how he started photographing the Girls?

PV: Christer Strömholm had quite a dark and rough life before he became a photographer in the 1940’s: his parents divorced when he was very young, his father committed suicide when he was 16, he engaged against fascism during the Spanish Civil War, then fought during the Second World War in Norway. Death was always close. It is impossible to know if by nature Christer Strömholm was attracted to dark subjects, but surely what life brought to him at a very early age must have had a strong impact on him, and on his art. In the beautiful documentary that his son Joakim made about him, “Close your eyes and see,” Christer comes across as an extremely intelligent man, and inherently drawn to the margins—the fine line between life and death. When he met the girls of Place Blanche by chance in Paris in the late 1950’s, he met his equals: people who were fighting, misfits who were managing to find light in the roughness of their lives. It was actually the first time that Christer was able to take photographs of (facing, really) living beings. From then on, he took more and more portraits and became one of the greatest portraitists of his time, creating iconographic images of artists and Paris proper.

AK: What initially drew me to Strömholm’s work was the content of his early street photographs of abandoned objects and uninhabited spaces—the dog’s leash, the grave, the cemetery. Do you believe that the simplicity and straight-forwardness of these photographs initially caused his work to be overlooked? When did he begin to receive recognition?

Montmartre, 1949

Montmartre, 1949

PV: It is hard to tell, perhaps Christer was only experimenting with his camera at the time, for his own sake, not really trying to be known, just like Cartier-Bresson in the 1930’s. His early work was more of a metaphysical wandering. And then he met these girls. Indeed many photographers and art critics discovered Christer Strömholm in the 1980’s, when “Vännerna från Place Blanche” came out in Sweden. It quickly sold out and became a cult classic at the time. It is almost as if “Les Amies” had brought Christer (back to) life, and with it, the recognition from his peers.

AK: It seems that he was shooting only with available light from the beginning of his career. How did his theory on light develop?

PV: It is indeed very interesting. Strömholm was working with day light, street lights, car lights, neon lights.… Working with what was available in order not to disturb the natural order of things, or the subjects–dead or alive. No violent artifact. This was one of his mottos and one of the main lessons he taught his students. One might argue that it had something to do with the light he grew up with in Sweden—or the lack of it most of the year, which you learn to live with and see with. And perhaps it also had to do with his eye, which was really that of a painter. In fact, in many of his photographs, especially his portraits in the dark hotel rooms of Place Blanche, you can see that he uses light like a Renaissance master, composing with an incredible subtlety. The available light is where the beauty and the authenticity of his pictures lie.

AK: Can you explain his relationship to the artists in Paris (Fernand Léger, Marcel Duchamp, Le Corbusier, etc) whom he was portraying while a student at the Beaux Arts? Was Strömholm searching for a subject matter at this time?

PV: Yes, absolutely, interesting subject matter, but also looking for pocket money and friends! He developed strong relationships with some of the artists he photographed then, spending a lot of time with them and their circle of friends. He introduced some of the Girls to them, too. It was also a nice way for him to make a living in a more conventional way: a story like “Les Amies” was a personal one, from which he would not make money. On the other hand, his portraits of artists would sell to the magazines very easily.

AK: Was Strömholm influenced by Robert Frank? It seems that not only does “Les Amies” tell a story of survival in the way of Frank’s “The American,” but that both photographers shared a similar preference for sharper contrasts and harder edges over the softer, more tonal photography running its course through Europe. They seem to me unique in their pursuit of a harder edged truth.

PV: Many people see Brassaï’s “Paris by Night” in “Les Amies,” while others see Ed van der Elsken’s “Love on the Left Bank.” There is definitely a similar form of melancholy in “Les Américains” (first published in France by Delpire in 1958, exactly when Christer met the Girls), and a break in the conventional form of photography—darker, and somewhat closer to a movie, especially the New Wave (somehow his photograph “Little Christer,” and the overall atmosphere in “Les Amies,” remind me of “Les 400 Coups” by Truffaut). But who knows whether Christer knew or loved Frank’s work then? In a way I think Strömholm was far more involved in his subjects than Frank was: Strömholm spent years with the Girls, developed very strong human ties with them. Today Nana and Jacky, two of his favorite subjects, attend all of his openings and talk about Christer with deep friendship and emotion. It is a very different approach, all in all, a more personal one, closer to Nan Goldin’s, really.

Place Blanche

Place Blanche

AK: Why is it that Strömholm’s work was not shown in an American museum until last year and what compelled you to organize the exhibition, was it the reissuing of the book or was the book a product of the exhibition?

PV: It is a good question as Christer’s work had been widely exhibited in Europe, especially in France and Spain, over the past twenty years. The publication, a bilingual (French/English) reprint of “Les Amies de Place Blanche” in 2011 by Aman Iman Publishing, definitely helped bring this master work across the Atlantic. Paris Photo 2011 was also a key event during which our Chief Curator, Brian Wallis, met with the people of Galerie Vu, who represent Strömholm in France, and also with Nana and Jacky, two of the main protagonists of “Les Amies de Place Blanche.” He was deeply impressed by the strength of this body of work, and decided that ICP should absolutely show it. I had the immense privilege of being asked to organize it. So, I suppose there needed to be momentum. 2012 was definitely the Strömholm year, with this show in the US and all over the world, including a major retrospective in his native Sweden, at Fotografiska, now traveling throughout Europe. The essay had never been shown by itself before the ICP show, and it made an extremely strong impression on the American public. I think it was really a coup, and a fantastic one.

Strömholm’s retrospective is currently on view at C/O Berlin, and his work is also presented at the Kicken Gallery, Berlin.

—Ashley Booth Klein

 

PAULINE VERMARE grew up in France, Japan, and Hong Kong. In 2001, after earning a Masters of International Relations at Sciences Po, Paris, she joined the Paris bureau of Magnum Photos. In 2002, she started working for the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, where she worked until 2009 with Agnes Sire on the production of the catalogues and exhibitions. In February 2009, she moved to New York to work on the Cartier-Bresson retrospective curated by Peter Galassi at MoMA. In May 2010, she joined the Capa archive at ICP to work on “The Mexican Suitcase” with Curator Cynthia Young. She recently finished organizing a Chim (David Seymour) retrospective, which opened in January, 2013, and is now preparing the exhibition “Capa in Color”, which will open next year.