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Works by Lynda Benglis, Spanning 40 Years of Creative Output, on View in Rhode Island
Installation view of Lynda Benglis, October 1, 2010 until January 9, 2011. Photo: Courtesy of the Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.

PROVIDENCE, RI.- American sculptor Lynda Benglis (b. 1941) has defied prevailing views on the nature and function of art for more than 40 years. The exhibition Lynda Benglis, at The RISD Museum is composed of more than 50 works that represent the breadth of her remarkable output, dating from the 1960s through today. The RISD Museum is the first of only two North American venues for this major survey show.

Benglis’s best-known works question the rigors of Modernism and Minimalism by merging material, form, and content; bringing color back into sculpture; and taking painting off the wall. These works include her richly layered wax paintings and poured latex and polyurethane foam sculptures of the late 1960s and early ’70s; innovative videos, installations, and “knots” from the 1970s; metalized, pleated wall pieces of the 1980s and ’90s; and pieces in a variety of other mediums, such as glass, ceramics, photography, or cast polyurethane, as in the case of the monumental The Graces (2003–05).

Two of the more notable works in Lynda Benglis are the gravity-defying cantilevered phosphorescent sculpture installation titled Phantom (1971) and the 1975 installation Primary Structures (Paula’s Props). Because most of Benglis’s poured wall pieces are no longer extant, the reunion of the five parts of Phantom for the first time since its original presentation at Kansas State University is of particular importance. This important work is on view only at The RISD Museum and, following RISD, at the New Museum. Primary Structures, which takes its name from the 1966 seminal exhibition of Minimalist sculpture, is a theatrical tableau of classical columns which plays with and rejects Minimalist principles, including the Minimalists’ rejection of pedestals. “Lynda Benglis has greatly influenced contemporary sculpture in general and a number of younger artists in particular, and assembling this many of her most important works, especially a number that are seldom shown, is very exciting. These are impressive, thought-provoking pieces, and I’m certain they’ll stimulate valuable dialogues about formal experimentation, as well as the political nature of art,” explains Judith Tannenbaum, The RISD Museum’s Richard Brown Baker Curator of Contemporary Art.

Taking the body and landscape as starting points, Benglis creates abstract works which are often distinguished by their physicality and immediacy, and have been famously described as “frozen gestures.” Her interest in process first manifested itself in early wax reliefs, created by applying one layer of colored wax on top of another, building up a geological landscape in works such as Karen (1972). Materials are also the core of Benglis’s Fallen Paintings series, such as Blatt (1969), in which pigmented liquid latex or polyurethane foam were poured onto the floor and against the wall.

In the 1970s, Benglis began a series of “sparkle knots”—made with cotton bunting, plaster, acrylic paint, and glitter over metal screen—and metalized knots which were sprayed with zinc, aluminum, or copper. Looping and tying the material, she created bow-like forms that display tensile energy and subvert the austerity of prevailing Minimalism. Addressing the issue of taste, Benglis said in 1989, “There will always be a Puritan strain in society that gets nervous if things are too pleasurable, too beautiful, or too open. That’s the most significant legacy of feminist art; it taught us not to be afraid to express these things.”

The exhibition features documentary material that underscores Benglis’s interest in exploring and subverting gender roles as well as pioneering video works which tackle themes of gender politics and experiment with the formal and performative potential of what was then a new medium. Videos such as Mumble layer audio and visual elements as they address the possibilities and limitations of the screen and Benglis’s relationship to it as director and performer, while Female Sensibility (1973) explores feminine sensuality. Benglis has long used media as a means of controlling her image and highlighting and challenging gender and power imbalances. Her most famous and explicit gesture, a two-page spread that appeared in Artforum magazine in November 1974, cemented her position as a provocateur within the American art world.

For The RISD Museum exhibition, some additional artworks of significance have been included. A few of these works will also be shown at the New Museum in New York, where Lynda Benglis goes on view February 9, 2011, after closing at RISD the previous month. The additional works on view at RISD range from grids of Polaroid photographs from the Secrets series (1974–75), a large fan-shaped wall piece from the Peacock series (1979), and a group of large paper Vessel Lamps (2009), as well as pieces rendered in clay and glass and the five-piece Phantom installation. Some of the works in glass were made at RISD in 1985, when she served as a visiting artist and critic. “I’m especially pleased that we’re able to present these additional pieces to our visitors,” says curator Judith Tannenbaum. “Few people know the breadth of Lynda’s work, and the full extent of her oeuvre reveals how she has revisited materials and ideas over the years. She’s always been very interested in the surfaces of her works, in their textural qualities, and she has sometimes described her artmaking process as working from the outside in. And in this show, we get to see how that dynamic process has changed over four decades.”

Born in 1941 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Lynda Benglis lives and works between New York; Santa Fe; Kastelorizo, Greece; and Ahmedabad, India. Benglis studied at Newcomb College, now part of Tulane University, graduating with a BFA in 1964. She is represented by Cheim & Read, New York.

Her solo exhibitions include Galerie Hans Müller, Cologne, 1970; Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 1970; Hayden Gallery, MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971; Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas, 1971; Lynda Benglis: Video Tapes, curated by Robert Pincus-Witten, Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York, 1973; Sparkle Knots, The Clocktower, New York, 1973; Moving Polaroids, The Kitchen, New York, 1975; Lynda Benglis-Keith Sonnier, A Ten Year Retrospective, 1977–1987, Alexandria Museum of Art, Alexandria, Louisiana, 1987; Dual Natures, curated by Susan Krane, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 1990 (Benglis’s last major retrospective); Lynda Benglis: From the Furnace, Aukland City Art Gallery, 1993; Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, 1991; Michael Janssen Gallery, Cologne, 1997; Lynda Benglis: Sculptures, Bass Museum of Art, Miami, 2003; A Sculpture Survey 1969–2004, Cheim & Read, New York, 2004; Lynda Benglis: Pleated, Knotted, Poured…, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia, 2006; Lynda Benglis-Louise Bourgeois, Circa 70, Cheim & Read, New York, 2007; and Shape Shifters, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia, 2008.

Benglis has also exhibited widely in major group exhibitions, including the seminal Anti-Illusion: Procedure/Materials, Whitney Museum of Art, New York, 1969 (catalogue only); Works for New Spaces, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1971; Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1973, 1981; Three-Dimensional Painting, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Early Work, The New Museum, New York, 1982; The New Sculpture 1965–75: Between Geometry & Gesture, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1990; Fémininmasculin: le sexe dans l’art, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1995; More Than Minimal: Feminism and Abstraction in the ’70s, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1996; and, more recently, Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis, Tate Modern, London, 2001; Summer of Love: Psychedelic Art from the 60s, Tate Liverpool, 2005; High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–1975, Independent Curators International, New York, 2007; Circa 70: Lynda Benglis and Louise Bourgeois, Cheim & Read, New York, 2007; and Lynda Benglis/Robert Morris: 1973–1974, Susan Inglett Gallery, New York, 2009.

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