New York

“Circa 70: Lynda Benglis and Louise Bourgeois”

Cheim & Read

A museumworthy show presented as a gallery two-hander, “Circa 70: Lynda Benglis and Louise Bourgeois” joined recent exhibitions like “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–1975” and “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution” in inviting audiences to reconsider— or to consider at all—what happened thirty or forty years ago, when the legacies of Dada, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism met Minimalism, Process, Pop, and performance in the minds and studios of women artists who were in love with art history but mad as hell; ambitious but self-reflexive; funny and subversive, yet dedicated to formal perfection.

As represented here, Benglis and Bourgeois share intense interests—in biomorphic abstraction, in the technical challenges of sculptural casting, in rage at the Law of the Father, and in gleeful probing of taboo folds and ooze. Their tête-à-tête implicitly indicts masters and brothers while claiming sons: Jackson Pollock, Richard Serra, Robert Morris, Robert Smithson, Matthew Barney, and even Gabriel Orozco come to mind. But so do Louise Nevelson, Lee Bontecou, Eva Hesse and Yayoi Kusama. In this work, castrating parody doubles as engagement with a version of the self understood not as transcendent spirit but as intelligent embodiment in sheer matter.

Born thirty years apart (in 1911 and 1941, respectively), Bourgeois and Benglis draft a Venn diagram of references. For Bourgeois, these could include psychoanalysis, Constantin Brancusi, and the tapestry-restorer’s atelier (her family was in the business), while for Benglis one might cite advertising, Carl Andre, and industrial materials. Bourgeois’s art inhabits a polymorphous dream, allowing oral-anal desire to solidify its aggressions in grand totems. Benglis stages an adolescent rather than infantile drama, in which displays of luscious raunch promise not only immediate pleasure in the object but secondary pleasure in its public enjoyment. These subtleties pulsed under the surface of “Circa 70,” charging it with the sense of obsessions worked through, or metabolic spasm and release. This sounds organic—even (heaven forbid) essentialist. But inextricable from these artists’ commitment to abstraction is, of course, critique. If the personal is political, then the formal is ideological.

The show opened with two iconic photographs. Acknowledging brash actions and art-world politics past, these documents literalize, on the bodies of the makers, the flux and fantasy that fuel the artist’s formal experiments. In the first, essential image, an androgynous-cyborg Benglis sports bikini tan lines, Lolita shades, and a gigantic, veiny dildo in the image that couldn’t not be present (its “extreme vulgarity” prompted five Artforum associate editors, in 1974, to write an angry letter to their editor in chief, an act that ultimately led to Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson’s departure and to the launch of October). An only apparently milder shot from 1980 hung adjacent: grandmotherly Bourgeois standing before floral-frosted French doors, wearing a latex jacket studded with bulbous appendages. From here the show went tit for tat in a fugue of forms. Lumpen, comic, and scatological, bronze fetishes like Bourgeois’s Janus Fleuri, 1968, and Benglis’s Eat Meat, 1969, rhymed with exudations like Soft Landscape III, in plastic (Bourgeois, 1967), and Karen, in colored wax and plaster (Benglis, 1972). Making rigid the flaccid and laying gold patina on the informe, these sculptures exploit the properties of that which can be poured and molded, exploring the bulge, the glop, the crevice. Tongue, intestine, breast, and cock become lava, stalactite, fungus, and pod; swamp things mutate into oil fields, cake batter, lichen, vomit, foam. And yet, arrayed, all looked serene as—in Emily Dickinson’s phrase—“Vesuvius at home.”

If this show was such a good idea, why was it so long in coming? Maybe some magic mark has passed, and what was once the discomfiting recent past has acquired fascinating distance. Maybe it’s the uncanny return of a political milieu defined by an environmental crisis, a morally bankrupt and strategically disastrous war, and fear of bombs in the streets. Perhaps queer progress is relevant. For whatever reason, the ’70s are in vogue. It’s the best moment in a generation to think about what travels under the rubric of feminist art.

Frances Richard