At 73 years old, sculptor Lynda Benglis’ has four studios on three continents and her work is exhibited around the world
Speaking from her studio in the Hamptons, Lynda Benglis winds comfortably down a conversational path as we slip from talking about the psychedelic colours found in volcanic secretions to discussing how life is made up of forms, feelings and a stream of personal processes. Touching on “prioritising feeling over intellectualising” and finding “boundless inspiration in nature,” what comes through most strongly in her words is the everyday spirituality at the core of her artistic practice. “When I’m working I become one with my materials,” she explains, adding that her most creative mode of production is akin to being in a sustained meditative state.
It was Benglis’ sense of being an extension of her medium that led Life magazine, in 1970, to hail her as the heir to Jackson Pollock. Benglis says Pollock had talked about the idea of the artist inhabiting the medium. Although her bright, voluminous and wildly diverse plastic forms initially seem far from Pollock’s paintings, both display their authors’ process-led practice through gestural abstraction. That Benglis poured coloured paint onto the floor for her early latex paintings surely didn’t hurt the auspicious comparison, echoing Pollock’s habit of standing over his canvases to drip paint across them.
During the 1970s, Western culture was digesting modern art’s big shake-ups. Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop Art had become de rigueur. History’s gender bias meant these movements were dominated by men, and the masculinity of their defining characteristics has been analysed ever since. Andy Warhol and Sol LeWitt were Benglis’ friends but also her competitors.
Against this backdrop, she placed a series of provocative advertisements in Art Forum magazine in the 1970s with the ironic title Centrefold. These ads used images of her undressed self to lampoon the art world’s supreme focus on male artists, and to promote her own exhibition. Cindy Sherman, a former student of Benglis, later cited seeing those ads as a pivotal moment in the development of her own work.
The 1970s and 1980s were a time of corrective multiplicity across the arts in America and Europe. Along with the push for gender diversity promoted by the new feminist critique, international and multiracial diversity came into focus. Benglis had a very American childhood, growing up in 1940s Louisiana, but her family is part Greek and she cultivated an international existence for herself as she sought out different environments.
Today she works from studios in East Hampton in New York, Kastelorizo in Greece, Ahmedabad in India and Santa Fe in New Mexico. It seems she sustains her practice by channelling the energies she finds in her different studio spaces, and talks of how the colours of the Mediterranean and harmony of classical architecture influence her when in Greece, while the many colours and intense experiences of India emerge when she’s working there.
It’s New Mexico, however, that prompts her to speak most evocatively. “I built my studio there from a series of door frames and added mud bricks by hand to the floor,” she recalls. Considering the past lives of these architectural materials to be an integral part of the communicative capacities of her sculptural media, she describes dropping into a state of pure feeling when working in Santa Fe. Her latest pieces use handmade paper stretched into drum-like parchment that evoke the deserts in this part of Western American.
Benglis’ international habits are echoed in her current retrospective at UK museum The Hepworth Wakefield. Organised by geographical location, the exhibition contains 50 works from throughout her career. Looking at the dates of many pieces on show, it is hard to grasp why they still feel radical in 2015.
Perhaps it’s because they appear simultaneously prehistoric and futuristic. Is it their neon hues and apocalyptic-looking mix of natural and technological references? Does their strange materiality cause particular feelings in the body irrespective of time? Talking about the show, Benglis believes the sensual presence of her sculptures allows viewers to bypass their intellect and its dependency on cultural context, including any particular era. “I just love the way people have responded so strongly to the exhibition,” she says. “It makes me feel like my pieces can speak directly to people in a timeless way.”
Lynda Benglis at The Hepworth Wakefield, West Yorkshire, continues until July 1,2015. www.hepworthwakefield.org