Lynda Benglis

Left: Lynda Benglis, Pi Tangerine, 2009, urethane with orange pigment, 29 x 29 x 13 1/2“. Right: Lynda Benglis, North South East West, 2009, cast bronze fountain and steel, 66 x 184 x 184”. Installation view, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin.

The singular artist Lynda Benglis is widely known for her poured-latex sculptures and fallen paintings of the 1960s, as well as her videos and gilt works. Here she speaks about an upcoming show at New York’s Cheim & Read Gallery, which opens on November 19, and her current retrospective at the Irish Museum of Art in Dublin, which will travel to four additional venues around the world.

THE IDEA FOR MY NEW WORKS came to me about ten years ago, when I was thinking about polyurethane foam and what else it could do. I wanted to draw with this texture and let the drawing become the form. I began making sphere after sphere in the studio, casting some of the pieces in bronze. Those shapes looked like helmets or brains. Since then, I’ve used the foam to make hemispheres and large egg forms and free-edge works that are wave- and torso-like.

These works relate to my earlier pour pieces, when I began to affix those to the wall directly. I would take the underpinning––the wire and the plastic––away from the form, then there would be kind of a wave coming out into space. Some works, like one at the Hayden Gallery at MIT in 1971, weighed about three hundred to four hundred pounds. The structural engineers there couldn’t figure out what happened––but it was cellular, and the crosshatching in the pours made the form very strong.

The exhibition at Cheim & Read is really about combining the complexity and simplicity of form. I’m interested in the gestalt; how we read surfaces through texture and form, and how the texture creates the forms, whether matte or shiny, and if the form has varied edges. Although the show is about simplification, it does open up a discussion about the illusion of matter. Conceptually, the works are about open-ended rather than closed systems, but they are deductive in terms of their materials.

I’ve always found my supplies through the yellow pages, and I made my contacts that way. In the ’70s, I would walk through Chinatown and get ideas. I’ve looked at a variety of imagery in a variety of contexts. For instance, I’m a scuba diver, and I became interested later in the underwater coral formations in the Pacific, then the Great Barrier Reef and the Indian Ocean. Trees, darkness, light, the beach, water––all this has informed my work.

There’s a connection, in a linear and textual sense, with my new work and the pieces in the retrospective. Originally, I wanted to make my own paintings and use my own format; I began with the wax. In the early to mid-’60s, I began to work in an unheated basement studio. It had electric plugs, and I used a heater and hot plate to melt my own wax and pigments. I defined works according to a human scale, and that’s been one consistent element in all my work. I’m a humanist first.

Another aspect that comes out in the retrospective is that I want the viewer to move around to interact with the forms. In the past twenty-five years, I’ve been producing fountains. I’ve always wanted to do them. In 1971, after several early installation pieces all over the country (including at the Kansas State University Museum, Vassar College, the Milwaukee Art Center, the Walker Art Center, and MIT), I didn’t want to make art in situ within a museum context. I felt like I couldn’t wear art on my sleeve and do installations anymore that were meant to be permanent in idea and form.

For the gardens at the Irish Museum of Art, I’ve made North South East West, which has four bronze cantilevers. They come together in the center, and a geyser of shooting water creates a column for five minutes! It’s like a spurting of a continuous volcanic eruption. It was amazing to see this idea that I’ve had since the early 1970s realized and to see the idea in motion, literally. I’ve always wanted to make a fountain that moves water in four different directions through the bronze elements.

The new work and the retrospective have reminded me of what it was like when I arrived in New York, at the height of the Pop movement. I remember that James Rosenquist was wearing paper suits to openings. At that time, I was interested in Frank Stella, Ralph Humphrey, and Barnett Newman, and I liked a few of the painters of my own age. Things seemed very doctrinaire, however, in terms of the way people were thinking about the “wheres” and “hows” of art. Critics were beginning to ask whether easel painting was dead, and so hundreds of people would show up at panel discussions on this issue. I can’t imagine that at this moment there could be that kind of intensity over such issues. But that’s how it was.