PRINT October 2002


Lynda Benglis

Barry Schwabsky revisits the circumstances of Lynda Benglis's career-making invitation to participate in the Whitney Museum of American Art's 1969 “Anti-Illusion” show and her subsequent decision to withdraw her work from that influential exhibition.

SEVERAL ICONIC IMAGES come to mind when we think of Lynda Benglis: her gilded knots of the late '70s for instance, exemplary of that moment's rediscovery of the decorative. And of course the notorious ad that graced (or disgraced, depending on the beholder) these pages in November 1974, the one with the artist sporting a dildo—an image so outrageous to some that it caused, famously, an irreparable rift among the magazine's editors. But for many viewers, the first image the name Benglis conjures will be of one of her “spills”—those electric-hued expanses of pigmented latex from the late '60s that gave the Anti-Form art pioneered by a somewhat older group of artists like Robert Morris and Eva Hesse its clearest pedigree in the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock and, more surprising, in the Color Field painting that also claimed descent from Pollock's poured paintings. It's all the more curious, then, that Benglis was not in the movement's defining exhibition, the Whitney Museum of American Art's 1969 “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials,” curated by Marcia Tucker and James Monte—despite the fact that you can read about her work in the catalogue. Therein hangs a tale: the “first break” that didn't quite happen.

Our story begins in the summer of 1964, when a very canny young woman from Louisiana, Tulane BFA in hand, made her way to New York on a bus filled with anti-Jim Crow activists on their way home from Mississippi. She lost her accent as fast as she could and enrolled at the Brooklyn Museum of Art School; within a few months, it seems, she knew almost everyone in the art world. Her blunt manner must have been balanced by considerable charm if, as the story goes, she really got away with telling David Hockney, at one of his openings, that his drawings were good but that he ought to forget about the paintings, and recommending to Dan Flavin, still making painted boxes with lightbulbs sticking out, that maybe he could lose the boxes. (Not a bad idea, as it turned out.)

The New York art world was unimaginably small then—“nobody was going to these openings,” Benglis recalls—so it was relatively easy for a smart, ambitious young woman to meet the people who mattered and feel like she'd found a place in it. After a semester the Museum School had outlived its usefulness, and she began making her way as an artist. By the latter part of the decade she was investigating process-oriented paintings in wax on board and working part-time for Klaus Kertess at the Bykert Gallery (“I had to bring my own typewriter”). Later she worked as a waitress, and it was this job that brought in enough money for her to buy the quantities of latex she needed to make her first poured works, the breakthrough pieces that took Color Field painting into the literalist space of Minimalism. One of these works, recently reexhibited at the Locks Gallery in Philadelphia, is tellingly titled Odalisque: Hey Hey Frankenthaler, 1969.

The same year, Benglis was invited to participate in “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials,” and naturally, she proposed a big spill piece (Contraband, 1969). But there was a hitch: When she explained that her bright colors would pop out in a brilliant way against the museum's black stone floor, the curators realized that, while Benglis might have been as interested in procedures and materials as Morris, Richard Serra, and the rest, she was also just as interested in illusion—a no-no. At least that's how Benglis remembers it; Tucker for her part recalls that the work, unlike the artist's original proposal, was just too big. As a compromise, Benglis later told critic Carter Ratcliff, 'They offered to build a ramp for it, near the entrance to the museum, to sort of get it off to one side.“ But rather than allow her work to be marginalized, she withdrew it from the show. By that time, though, the catalogue had already gone to press, so there her work remained—which has occasionally led to its being discussed as if it had been in the exhibition. Just after ”Anti-Illusion“ opened, Benglis showed a similar latex work at Bykert, Bounce, 1969, a ”strange and startlingly colored spread“ that was recognized in an Artforum review as ”a kind of painting entirely freed from an auxiliary ground or armature."

Two decades later, the Whitney would make up for Benglis's absence by including her in its less prescriptively titled 1990 survey “The New Sculpture 1965-75: Between Geometry and Gesture.” Benglis may have been notable for her nonappearance at the Whitney in 1969, but that just meant that her first important one-person show, which took place at Paula Cooper the next year, and her inclusion, along with Hesse, Serra, and Richard Van Buren, in a Life magazine article called “Fling, Dribble, and Drip” were really ways for the public to play catch-up with a career that had already launched and was about to veer off in new directions.

Barry Schwabsky is a frequent contributor to Artforum.