Winter 2015
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V. INTERVIEWS

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.