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In 1974 the artist Lynda Benglis posed for a photograph that was printed in the magazine Artforum advertising her exhibition. The photograph showed Benglis naked, except for sunglasses, thrusting a large dildo toward the camera. At that point in her career Lynda Benglis was part of a burgeoning New York art scene but, unsurprisingly, the notorious photograph came to define her career and led to her being marginalized.
Susan Richmond, in this full-length study of Lynda Benglis’ work, engages first with this photograph and its notoriety. Her discussion finds a context for the photograph and the later conjecture it produced: its being claimed by feminist art historians and artist activists as an early archetypical feminist statement. This, for Richmond, is necessary stage to get through before she can move on to a thorough examination of Benglis’ work, an art practice that had been established before – and continued after the notorious photograph.
Richmond then begins to unravel the complexity of Benglis’ practice in this, the first volume on her work. Richmond does not attempt to offer an examination of the artist’s entire oeuvre but is concerned with a number of themes or ‘moments’ in her career. Benglis created latex and polyurethane pours – floor and wall works – in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Richmond expressly looks at the works of art themselves, their methods and formal concerns, rather than any later ‘performative’ interpretations of them. Her works are considered as responses to Jackson Pollock’s earlier ‘drip’ painting methods and to artists that were contemporary with her: Minimalists Carl Andre (creator of Equivalent VIII, popularly known as ‘the pile of bricks’ in the Tate), Dan Flavin and Robert Morris amongst them.
In Benglis’ encaustic relief paintings of the early 1970s she continued to use fluid materialsm which to her had bodily associations and could refer to gender identity. Then, during the mid 1970s, she made videos where the concern with gender identity developed into an interest in representing sexuality and sexual politics. Her videos explore ideas of female sensuality and the pleasure of the spectator, for instance in the video Female Sensibility (1973). As Richmond attests – what appears to be a playing out of a lesbian erotic scene in this video continually defers its promise to the viewer. It seems that Benglis is equally ironic and witty in a later video, How’s Tricks (1976) where she strikes the same pose used in the Artforum ad mentioned above – in silhouette.
Later chapters consider her ‘campy’ knotted relief sculptures, again of the mid 1970s, and her metal casting and public projects since the 1980s. In these works Richmond’s commentary focuses on Benglis’ later use of decorative form and later cast forms in traditional bronze.
In this monograph, Richmond has successfully reinstated the work of Lynda Benglis, providing a broader reading of her work that is both rigorous in its examination and considered in its interpretation. Given much of the reductive commentary previously available on Benglis’ work and career this book provides a welcome and enlightened addition to the literature. In its hardback edition, this would be an excellent addition to any University library.
Lynda Benglis: Beyond Process by Susan Richmond is published by I.B. Tauris. 56 mono and 25 colour illus, hardback. ISBN: 978 1 78076 257 9
Media credit: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchased with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee and partial gift of John Cheim and Howard Read. © Lynda Benglis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.