PRINT November 1974

Lynda Benglis: the Frozen Gesture

LYNDA BENGLIS CONTRIBUTES TO new options in American art––my reluctance to admit this is tied to her extravagance. Few talents today are so alert to the weights and balances of the actual moment as Benglis, and no artist seems more capricious, more casual. She appears to toss aside important realizations at the instant of their discovery. Rarely has the observation that art is about beginnings been more apt than in her case. In this sequence of feints and probes, Benglis stands in striking contrast to many of the major Minimalists of the ’60s, who built their careers on one idea as an intense and committed demonstration of the continuing validity of a single option. In Benglis’ apparent reluctance to remain with a problem taken to its most extenuated circumstances lies the notion that the artist evolves in disjunctive, not conjunctive, terms. Her formal volatility is her primary message and strength.1

Lynda Benglis left Louisiana in 1964 to continue her art studies at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. In 1969 she participated in a group exhibition at the Bykert Gallery with Richard Van Buren, Chuck Close, and David Paul. From May of that year to the present is hardly a long period. In terms of art, however, virtual generations have come and gone. The major shift of sensibility has been the emergence of a Post-Minimalist stance, first realized in the pictorial sculptures so well exemplified by Benglis’ latex and foam works. Conceptual work and performances succeeded this pictorializing phase of sculpture, and these developments are reflected in Benglis’ use of video and her current mannered erotic art.

In the Bykert show, Benglis exhibited a latex floor piece called Bounce. As Emily Wasserman described it:

Miss Benglis spills stains of liquid rubber in a freely flowing, twining mass directly onto the floor of the exhibition space, mixing fluorescent oranges, chartreuses, day-glo pinks, greens, and blues, allowing the accidents and puddlings of the material to harden into a viscous mass. The outer contours trace the natural flow of the latex and define the amoeba-like but self-contained field of this strange and startlingly colored spread. The method by which the piece was (non) formed is thus actually objectified while the events and timing of its process are congealed.2

Calling Bounce a “protoplasmic mat,” Wasserman recognized that the work was “a kind of painting entirely freed from an auxiliary ground or armature”––a free gesture gelled in space. Still, Wasserman had reservations about this new painterly episode in sculpture.

By now, it is clear that Benglis was answering the fusion of painting and sculpture that had taken place in the mid-’60s. The pictorial sculpture I refer to generally, and Benglis’ particularly, furthered this fusion by making a new object which is the result of an Expressionist episode enacted directly upon the floor. Choosing this option, Benglis, like Van Buren, Hesse, Saret, Serra, and Sonnier, transposed the easel tradition questioned in Abstract Expressionism into an actual environmental enterprise.

Agreed: Pollock’s career, from the ’40s on, drifted in the direction of muralizing and wall-oriented ambitions. In addition to adumbrating the changed scale of American art, Pollock had keyed into an interest in eccentric process and substance as well. The most famous photograph of the artist, taken by Hans Namuth, shows him stepping into a canvas spread upon the floor. “Pollock pioneered the movement of dealing with materials used by the artist as the prime manifestation of imagery,” said Benglis. “He drew with paint by dipping sticks into cans of liquid color and making an image on canvas placed on the floor, which was subsequently framed and hung. This was a new way of thinking.”3

In Pollock’s work, literary content was clued to ritual myth and jungian archetype, the figure of constant human meaning revealed in psychoanalysis. By contrast, such content in Benglis’ work is inherent to substance. As Pollock’s paintings grew larger, ultimately to wall scale, he was able to step into them during their execution as he might have entered a great hall of prehistoric painting. I believe the register of handprints in the upper right corner of Number One, 1948 (The Museum of Modern Art), reenacts for the jungian a major gesture of Paleolithic painting––the negative or positive handprints found, for example, throughout the caves of Peche Merle, Altamira, Lascaux or Santander.4 It was important for Benglis to be in her latex and foam “pours” of 1968 during their execution as it was for Pollock to step into the paintings of his 1945–51 Jungian phase. And, once Benglis’ works are exhibited, the spectator enjoys a similar access.

Simultaneous with the pours, Benglis was producing eccentric and narrow wax paintings. Klaus Kertess observed of these capsule-shaped works that, “pigmented wax was put on layer over layer with a brush of the same width as the support, creating an image of two brushstrokes coming together and splitting apart at the center.” Tulip (1968) “evokes the waxy beauty of tulips or of lips (two lips, my lips).” Benglis said to me,

The wax paintings were like masturbating in my studio, nutshell paintings dealing with male/female symbols, the split and the coming together. They are both oral and genital. But I don’t want to get Freudian; they’re also Jungian, Ying-Yang.

Benglis produced these covert wax paintings for some time, although after 1970, the cracked and fractured wax encrustations move toward high refief.

Benglis’ identification with Pollock in terms of substance, procedure, and secret imagery came during a period when the nongestural side of Abstract Expressionism––the Rothko rather than the Pollock––was viewed as the paramount issue of progressive painting. Benglis sought a painterly episode derived from Abstract Expressionism and informed by the “collapsed” objects of Minimalism. Both these sources are important for her since they tend, in divergent ways, to isolate or excise the autonomous gesture from the ground.

The free gesture is the central notion of Benglis’ art. Since the early ’70s, she has understood “the frozen gesture,” as she calls it to mean something both physical and psychological––psychological in the sense of a phrase like “it was a lovely gesture,” or the term beau geste.

By 1970, Benglis was aware of new artistic models. After her latex throws, she turned to brightly colored polyurethane foam forms prefigured in Claes Oldenburg’s more borborygmic soft sculptures of the early ’60s. Benglis’ floorbound puffy works only appear soft, however; actually they are hard crusted aerated bodies of plastic. “Oldenburg turned material and subject matter inside out,” she said. “I don’t like the recent Mickey Mouse stuff. Too Cubist. I like all his earlier work around ’58 to ’62.” In addition, in 1970 Benglis became interested in day-glo pigment, pure color without black admixtures, and stabilized by ultraviolet resisters. Because of its high chromatic vibration and retinal irritation, day-glo sidesteps the usual issues of color, even though it is clearly hue. It tends to defy conventional color exploitation and the search for the subjective or personal palette of sensibility painting. Day-glo, tawdry and neon like, tends to celebrate the commercial and the commonplace, and this seeming vulgarity fascinates Benglis.

She wishes to “question what vulgarity is. Taste is context.” Benglis, then, worked out of Pop sensibility, but freed of that movement’s specific imagery.

I do not want my work to be iconographically Pop. I am still involved with abstraction. The first abstract paintings I ever thought about were some Klines shown at the Delgado Museum [in New Orleans]. Content grows out of form. Having an iconographic content can give me a form––say feminism, say Pop.

Day-glo offered the intensity most resistant to the floor––as Benglis remarked, the pigment “was down on the floor, but the color was up.”

Despite its low-class associations, day-glo has been used even in the rarified high art ranges of formalist abstraction. After his metallic series––itself reflective, therefore “uncolored”––Frank Stella, for example, undertook a day-glo series of works. The color in Morris Louis’ Unfurled series (although of a different chemical structure than day-glo), also provided Benglis with a formalist model of high key color. Moreover, Louis’ gestures in the Unfurled paintings are similar to the spectrumlike arrangements of lambent stripes in Benglis’ latex and foam pours.

Do not be misled. All this connection to other work (and to formalist art which, after all, was “the enemy”), is outside the essential interests of Benglis’ works themselves. As glamour is Warhol’s message and the star his icon, and the square, circle and triangle are the existential characters in the dramas of Minimalism, so is the frozen gesture––the excised, congealed, colored stroke––Benglis’ prime fascination and essential icon.

Instead of figure/ground Gestalts functioning within a conventional rectangular field, the environment becomes the ground for the figure. By 1970, Benglis’ pictorial sculptures no longer ratify the horizontal of the earth, but begin to engage the entire environment. With the endless environment as the ground for the frozen gesture, she embraced the notion of theatricality and all that it implies––temporality, performance, personality, media exploitation. She transformed the place of exhibition into an environment, a site awaiting a Happening. The excitement of these works is a function of the unconscious anticipation of such an event; they signaled a return to issues which had been carefully pruned from American art for a generation.

This anticipation of a temporal episode in her work, combined with her emerging conception of the frozen gesture as a free act, tipped Benglis to the use of video, though video was then being widely explored in terms of technological appeal. A kinetic result from a static impulse should not be surprising. Warhol, of course, preceded Benglis in this understanding when he moved from the seriality of, say, the Marilyns or the Brillo boxes to the sequential frame of filmstrip.

Benglis first used video equipment while teaching at the University of Rochester in 1970. She rejected the utopian ambitions of a generation of artists absorbed by the creation of the video synthesizers. Instead, she was drawn to the unselective recording of the actual as it happens, free of esthetics or ideology, a kind of mindless one-to-one. Spatial superimpositions––piling image on image––interest her. These blurry overlaps deal with transposed seriality––not the lateral seriality or modularity of the Minimalist grid, though surely this is a source––but an in-depth seriality which takes time, blur, static, and transient environmental interferences into account––an imagery with memory built-in. Benglis’ video piles up imagery in Expressionist terms similar to the way she throws paint or mounds foam. For Benglis, video is ubiquitous and expendable, like magnetic sound tape that; when it is recycled to record new information, effaces the old. Thus it renders expendable the very notion of the artwork.

“I got involved with video. I saw it was a big macho game, a big, heroic, Abstract Expressionist, macho sexist game. It’s all about territory. How big?” Video offered Benglis a perfect medium of gesture freed from materiality; thus gesture could be as large as possible. This contradicts the prevailing view of the artist as singlemindedly devoted to eccentric substances and physical processes.

At the same time that Benglis grasped the implicit scalelessness of Post-Minimalism (and found in video a medium devoid of issues of scale since it was immaterial), she abandoned the comparatively small latex or foam work for the cavernlike environment. The environments (For Darkness, Totem, Phantom, Pinto), constructed at numerous galleries and museums, actualize the cave, spilling grottolike forms well out into real space, often enclosing the visitor. Benglis poured and tossed polyurethane foam across inflated scaffolds which were subsequently removed. Since the foam sets quickly, the material needs no internal armatures; the works are supported by the real walls of the exhibition space. Some pieces employ a neutral color range. Others are hyped up with day-glo. Benglis sought theatrical special effects, adding phosphorescent salts to her pigments like those in rotting woods, lichens, and certain minerals. Under various lights or at special times, these grottolike formations glow “like relics from the natural history of some imaginary planet.”5 Again, the model for this rediscovery of the ritual site is Pollock. Nancy Graves, whose early work particularly is marked by a fascination with shamanism and the archeological site, made a similar rediscovery. Their position reintegrates the present with a precultural past.

Certain issues then stand clear in Benglis’ work: she is fascinated with substance and eccentric materials as a function of Expressionist sensibility, and she takes pleasure in vulgarity, which is central to Pop. At Benglis’ exhibition of metallized knots at the Clocktower last winter, for example, the artist, mindful of the holiday season, draped the balustrades with flashing Christmas lights. This colorism was specific to the occasion, but it also continues the eccentric coloration in Benglis’ other work. The Christmas lights, the spangle and sparkle, the powdered metallic dusts, are a kind of infantile and magical coloration that violates “adult” notions of taste and artistic decorum.

Although Benglis is a southerner by birth, these tawdry cosmetic colors evidence the unapologetic, unrepentant range of California taste. She chooses glinting metallic flecks and plastic substances like the automotive sheens of art in Southern California, where she spends a good part of the year.

The announcements for Benglis’ exhibitions, like her choice of colors, function as infra-information. Rather than reproducing a work on the announcement of her 1974 exhibition of knots at Paula Cooper Gallery, she sent out a Hollywood style chromo of herself––a cheesecake shot from the rear, blue jeans dropped below her knees. An earlier exhibition invitation pictured the artist as a child dressed for a party in Greek evzon costume. The cheesecake shot––in part homage to Betty Grable pinups––recalls for me a late version of Odilon Redon’s Birth of Venus. Though this work can hardly have been in her mind, Benglis is strongly interested in Classical myth. Among her most recent works are pornographic polaroids rendered ambiguous by their cultural context––they are parodies of Mannerist and Hellenistic postures. Il Rosso Fiorentino and ithyphallic kraters, a Leda without a swan. Robert Morris is her companion in several of these photographs, and in fact her cheesecake invitation is the pendant to his recent S-M fantasy poster announcement, which in turn references recent videotapes done conjointly. Morris exemplifies in stringent terms another intellectual artist attracted and repelled by instances of brute irrationality; something of Benglis’ free-floating openness seems sympathetic to this conflicted outlook.

In the work of both artists, overt sexuality points to a covert content––an ironic self-parody of sexuality, and not the exteriorization of a root eroticism. Benglis’ sexual photographs are not to be confused with Vito Acconci’s performances on erotic themes, although from the early ’70s on, Acconci had provided a sensational model of this kind of disclosure. Superficially, Benglis’ work reveals the tasteful, the glossy, and the narcissistic, while Acconci’s secret sexual systems are more populist, and tend toward the squalid, the exorcistic, and the puritanical.

The distanced experience of instinct lends Benglis’ and Morris’ sexual work its Mannerist edge. Writing of Morris’ S-M poster, Gilbert-Rolfe observed that it was “an ironic encapsulation” of the artist’s position, and noted that the poster “concentrates on the artist’s identity as a performer within an institution of a certain sort.” The critic observes that this “implicitly heroic identity . . . can only be credibly maintained if it’s capable of self-parody. Without that capacity, one is left with a rhetoric that doesn’t possess the ability to question itself.”6

Both the explicit and disguised sexual orientation of Benglis’ media exploitation remains a function of the frozen gesture. It has become the big risk. In Benglis’ work, the new medium is now “the media.” What is fascinating is the degree to which the artist, so sharply conscious of risk and stakes, perhaps remains unsure of the jackpot. I suspect she sees it as part of the mythical payoff that was Andy Warhol’s by the end of the ’60s. But to insist on this interpretation alone is to render base an equivocal activity which, though hardly neutral, is nonetheless disinterested in the way that all art is––however hard that may be to believe of the new erotic work. The problem with Benglis is not one of her creative blockage, but rather of the inadequacies of criticism to keep perspective without falling into mere reportage.

––Robert Pincus-Witten



1. There are nevertheless traceable groups of work in Benglis’ career––the wax lozenges, the knots, and the environments of tossed polyurethane foam, for example––these are types to which she will intermittently return. There is also the persistent Warholianism which lurks behind her formal choices. That too is a constant. The iconographic sets were examined at some length in Klaus Kertess, “Foam Structures,” Art and Artists, May, 1972 , pp. 32–37. This sensitive article addressed the link between formal choice and female consciousness in Benglis’ work.

2. Emily Wasserman, “New York: Group Show, Bykert Gallery,” Artforum, September, 1969, pp. 60–61. In an exhibition catalogue for “Materials and Methods: A New View,” held at the Katonah Gallery in the Spring of 1971, I maintained that “the disintegration of Minimalism” was the central operation of the period circa 1967–70. This supplanting of a key ’60s style was achieved through “a need for identifying sculpture in pictorial terms––particularly with regard to color and unusual substance.” This exhibition included the work of Keith Sonnier, Eva Hesse, Richard Van Buren, Alan Saret, and Dorothea Rockburne, although it could have as easily included works by Benglis.

3. Quoted in S. R. Dubrowin, “ Latex––One Artist’s Raw Material,” Rubber
, Volume 24, No.1 , 1971, pp. 10–12. Post Minimalism’s connections to Jackson Pollock are widely acknowledged. A popular piece of reportage on Lynda Benglis, Van Buren, Serra, and Hesse, “Fling, Dribble and Drip,” Life, February 27, 1970, stressed this affiliation.

4. Although this specific detail is not pointed to, Lawrence Alloway recently
reopened the issue of ritual literary content in his “Residual Sign Systems in
Abstract Expressionism,” Artforum, November, 1973. How this access would be facilitated through Jungian psychoanalysis is explained in Judith Wolfe, “Jungian Aspects of Jackson Pollock’s Imagery,” Artforum, November, 1972.

5. Hilton Kramer, New York Times, May 30, 1971. Kramer was covering the opening of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where he found “the most
arresting [work] was Lynda Benglis’ enormous and altogether macabre
sculptural environment consisting of 10 bizarre black shapes that append from
the wall . . . this is the most impressive work of its kind I have seen since Louise Nevelson first exhibited her black walls in the nineteen-fifties . . . .” A black-and-white videotape was made of the process of such an installation, “Totem (Lynda Benglis Paints with Foam),” by Annie McIntosh, taped at the Hayden Gallery, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, November, 1972.

6. “The Complication of Exhaustion,” Artforum, September, 1974.