New York

Lynda Benglis

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

There is a bit of an air of a used-car showroom when confronting Lynda Benglis’s recent show. At first it seemed to be a rerun of the poured polyurethane pieces cast in metal. It appeared she had done what the tradition of modern sculpture indicates all established sculptors do. They work in perishable substances in their youth and when they have achieved a modicum of financial success, they go back and cast the early work in more durable materials. But Benglis’s casting of the foam pieces in metal is indicative of a new direction in her work. When she executed the foam sculptures, she was concerned with making painterly sculptures which dealt primarily with the act of drawing three-dimensionally in color. When robbed of their color and cast in metal the pieces take on a more sculptural attitude which parallels the direction her sculpture has taken from the metallic knots to the present. Cast in lead, the corner piece, Quartered Meteor, no longer dominated by lush flesh colors, seems to be concerned with the pressure of gravity operating on a dense lavalike substance. The physicality of the interlocking layers is emphasized.

Benglis deliberately uses a variety of metals and finishes. This is particularly evident in what I thought to be one piece but is actually two discrete works. Four identical turdlike forms are grouped in pairs (one lead and tin and the other bronze and aluminum) on the floor at either end of what appeared to be an imaginary line running diagonally across the center of the gallery. The employment of different metals supplies some coloristic variety, and in time the differences will be accentuated as the bronze greens and the lead darkens; but the work is not about the entropic concerns which generally engage contemporary artists’ choice of these materials.

The most significant piece in the show, though not necessarily the most interesting, is Primary Structures (Paula’s Props), 1975, which sums up a hidden factor in Benglis’s work. It is a composition of Neoclassic Ionic columns, both whole and broken, in metal and plaster, arranged on a swath of grey velvet like a Thomas Cole tableau about the fall of empires. An ugly, gaudy, plastic lilac tree tops the plaster column and a metal cast of a toy Porsche (Benglis’s car) sits on another. Benglis’s sculpture has always eliminated the conventional sculpture stand, the base or pedestal. By making the columns she is deliberately underlining her extrusion of this element in her sculpture. It is also as if she is creating a memento mori for traditional historical attitudes about the display of sculpture.

In a showcase such as those reserved for the display of costly national treasures like the Hope Diamond, are casts of that famous double-ended phallus which caused such a furor. Making casts of it always seemed to me to have a certain Hollywood, souvenir-of-the-stars quality rather than any other real value. Here she couples them, calling the pair Parenthesis and saying that, by displaying them together, they form a closed circle, thus putting to rest that piece of public business. I’m not sure they serve that function, but they do have a definite air of a reliquary.

Benglis has been taking polaroids and grouping them in lines. Similar to the medieval syncretic form of picture composition in which a scene from the Old Testament is paired with one from the New Testament, the scenes are meant to be read as vertical pairs with the two photographs presenting a combined image (such as a full-blown rose, a symbol of female sexuality, with a close-up of a man’s face). Coupled in this way, the images have greater meaning than either alone. They range from “snaps” of roses to elaborate Baroque still-lifes luminous with glass reflections, blurry portraits, and boudoir scenes. Although the quality is uneven, the polaroids appear to be a new and positive direction her work is taking.

Ann-Sargent Wooster