The Re-Discovery of Lynda Benglis’ Art

Critics are calling the new retrospective of Lynda Benglis’ career a total revelation. Entitled simply, “Lynda Benglis,” this exhibition now at the Hepworth Wakefield Art Gallery, opened on February 6th and will run until July 15th, is the largest presentation of Benglis’ work ever to appear in the United Kingdom. The exhibition’s stated intent is nothing short of an attempt to provide a full overview of Benglis’ entire fifty year career to date.

This triumphant verdict is something to be expected given that Lynda Benglis is acclaimed, the world over, as one of America’s most significant living artists. Benglis emerged as part of a generation of artists whose work forged new approaches to sculpture and painting in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop Art. Benglis, after much trouble, established her career within, a then, decidedly male-dominated art world and became famous not only for her radical re-envisioning of sculpture and painting through her early works using wax and poured latex, but also for her works dealing with feminist politics and self-image. During her rise within the world of art Benglis became a friend and peer to artists such as Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt and Barnett Newman. In 1970, among her many and varied accolades Life magazine heralded Benglis as the “heir to Pollock.”

While Benglis is always referred to as a feminist and self-identified Greek-American artist I know of no account that situates her individual struggles as an artist and woman in the broader view of other Greek-American feminists and/or female artists of the same period. I need only name persons such as Marie Cosindas (b 1925), Chryssa (1933-2013), Irene Peslikis (1943-2002) and Theodora Skipitares to illustrate this point. Certainly others could also be named.

Since the 1880s, Greek born and Greek-American artists have and continue to influence not only the American art scene but world art as well. Greeks being Greeks, at the very same time, they have also proved to be leading figures in those institutions devoted to the instruction of the arts.

During the 1970s, the leading New York art critic and curator was Peter Selz (b 1919). Thalia Cheronis Selz (1925-2010), the award winning writer, editor and teacher was his Greek-American wife—at least while he was first in New York. “Greek American artists of the 20th Century” written by Peter Selz and Thalia Cheronis Selz for the leading journal American Art Review (Nov/Dec 1999) resulted in a museum exhibition of the same theme and a now much prized catalog. Benglis was included in that exhibition and catalog.

On October 25, 1941, Lynda Benglis was born in Lake Charles, LA the oldest of five children. Her mother was born in Mississippi, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, her father Michael was born in the United States to Greek immigrant parents. As Selz and Cheronis-Selz report on Michael Benglis’ family, “[H]is family came from Kastellorizo, a beautiful island of the Anatolian coast…where Benglis eventually bought a house. Her Greek grandmother first took her to see the Acropolis when she was eleven and also taught her to crochet, a skill Benglis continues among the arts.

When asked if there exists in her work any formal or emotional relationship to ancient Greek or Byzantine art or to Greek folk art, she listed (in this order): the Caryatids on the Acropolis, “the [Greek] holiday cookies” (kourambiethes), the braided Easter bread, and “the gold and gilded elements of the Greek Orthodox religion.” Elsewhere speaking of influences on her art, she has said, “So much has to do with things you remember: sensations, smells, and so on.” While, today Benglis owns (and travels between) houses in Manhattan’s SoHo District, East Hampton, the high desert outside Santa Fe and Ahmedabad, India whenever she is in Kastellorizo she lives in her grandparent’s home.

During her years in Louisiana, Benglis attended McNeese State University earning a BFA in 1964. Following graduation, she taught third grade at Jefferson Parish, in Louisiana. In late 1964 Benglis moved to New York where she enrolled at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, where she was awarded a Max Beckman Scholarship, to study painting. Without missing a step Benglis threw herself into New York’s art world. While today Benglis is widely known as a sculptor she has always worked in a variety of media including paint (oil, water and latex), pigmented bees-wax, drawings, polyurethane, ceramics, needle art, video, Damar resin, bronze, cast paper and assorted others. Again, while not drawing too specific a label to her work Benglis’ ongoing creations have been identified (at different times and by different observers) as expressionist, Pop, exhibitionist, feminist, funk and post-minimalist.

In the late 1960s, Benglis became known for what came to be first called her “spills” which were later termed “pours.” These pieces most often involved Benglis throwing paint and/or latex, much like Jackson Pollock (which was well-understood when these pieces began to appear), onto the floors of art venues such as the Whitney Museum of Modern Art. Never contained by one medium or phase of her art Benglis went on, in the 1970s, to create a long series of ribbons, gilled knots and other flowing and multicolor forms.

Now all of this may sound as if Benglis was slowly and surely moving up in the world of art but the process was much more episodic. Benglis’ organic flowing work with its layering and intentionally visible signs of the artist’s handling of the media, even at a time known for its artistic explorations, experienced criticism. Benglis, who today largely dismisses her label as a “feminist icon,” was nonetheless forced to establish her career within a male-dominated art world. Little did the male artists, critics, academics and other self-stylized connoisseurs of the period realize that Benglis could be one step beyond even their collective imagination.

In November 1974, Benglis took out a $3,000 advertisement in Artforum Magazine. As she explained her decision to take out this advertisement was made so that she could control all copy and images involved. Without question one of the reasons Benglis is an artist who is forever being “rediscovered” is the ongoing impact of this single advertisement. Benglis had herself photographed in full-color in the nude (her bodied well-oiled) wearing only a pair of sunglasses holding a giant dildo at her crotch. While this advertisement was objectively meant to announce an upcoming showing of Benglis’ work, more was at play.

Benglis chose this advertisement image as the means by which to confront what she understood as the overt male bias she perceived and experienced in the art establishment. “Although the Artforum advertisements were conceived and commissioned as an act of denunciation of the male-dominated art world and a media statement in favor of a feminization of the art scene, many feminists hated it at the time (” In point of fact, Benglis wanted to have this advertisement on Artforum Magazine’s cover but she could not the editors to sell her that space. This advertisement proved so controversial that various editors subsequently quit the magazine and numerous subscribers loudly discontinued their subscriptions. None of the subsequent controversy stopped Benglis’ ongoing career, or what proved to be her inevitable success on the world stage.

Since the mid-1970s, Benglis has traveled the world over adding various influences from art traditions to her own creations. Benglis’ own lava-like flows of artwork continue to stream from her on nearly a daily basis. All of which has gained attention. Benglis is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts grants, among other commendations. Her work is held in important public collections and has been exhibited at Tate Modern, The Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. Benglis was the subject of a 2010-11 international retrospective that travelled to The Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; The Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; Le Consortium, Dijon; New Museum, New York; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. In early 2014, Benglis showcased a series of new ceramic works in a solo exhibition at Cheim & Read, New York and Thomas Dane Gallery, London. The current retrospective at the prestigious Hepworth Wakefield Art Gallery is but the latest in a long line of ongoing exhibitions and tributes to a world class artist.

Why Lynda Benglis needs to be rediscovered every few years is a mystery. Given that Greek-Americans fawn over rich and internationally successful fellow Hellenes it is a wonder that we do not hear more about Benglis and her work. And really why do Greeks in the United States generally know little about the ongoing influences of Hellenic artists on the world?