The 1970s was a tumultuous decade, leaving many artists searching for a direct way to deal with an era of changing views on sexuality, race and politics. At that time, New York-based artist Lynda Benglis was at the forefront, using materials and media unfamiliar to the art world, such as poured latex and even video, to capture her sentiments about the period. She opened the field to new experimental art forms and processes, and, by doing so, helped to make a name for women artists in the male-dominated Manhattan art scene. This spring, Ferndale’s Susanne Hilberry Gallery has organized a 38-year survey of Lynda Benglis’ work. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Benglis about her role as an artist then and now.
Metro Times: The most recent thing that I’ve read about you was Richard Meyers’ article in Art Forum about the November 1974 spread you did for the magazine [in which Benglis appeared nude and covered in oil holding a large dildo to her crotch]. He talked about how that caused a huge rift in the editorial staff. Now that it’s been just over 30 years, how has time affected your opinions of that piece?
Lynda Benglis: It was done at that time for that time. I wanted to do it free and clear of any article but unbeknownst to me they were planning an article on me. The timing had a lot to do with our political environment: We were in Vietnam, we were on the moon, Nixon was lying and the Watergate exposé was happening all at the same time. I felt like doing a media statement that not only had to do with the times, but had to do with the fact that women and men were both undergoing a kind of realization about their interrelationships through the so-called feminist movement.
MT: That piece was really a forerunner for a lot of the work of the late ’80s and early ’90s … I’m thinking of Jeff Koons and maybe even Richard Prince.
Benglis: Absolutely. Another work called “Amazing Bow Wow,” which I’m going to show at Susanne’s, was the final work that I did, a blatantly sexual sort of spoof. The idea of the hermaphrodite is that sexuality should not be an issue. The issue is freedom of expression. Bow Wow the Dog could sing and dance but it just happened to be a hermaphroditic dog.
MT: Sexuality seems to have played a really important role in that period of work.
Benglis: All work is some form of sensitizing oneself to the environment. It causes us to recognize ourselves and become self-conscious. We perceive in many different levels all at the same time. You can’t divide the intellectual and the sensual.
MT: You’ve been cast as a feminist artist. Do you feel that’s appropriate?
Benglis: I would like to be cast as a humanist, someone who made a statement that was relevant to art history and the way we perceive ourselves and things.
MT: Do you feel any sort of responses to the art community or the gallery scene?
Benglis: I think there are certainly more artists and more galleries than there ever were and that means it’s more public. Art is a form of entertainment as well as a historical marking. But, certainly a lot of art out there is involved in entertainment.
MT: How’s the new work is coming along and in what ways does it relate to some of the work that you have done in the past.
Benglis: Well, I’ve been doing some fountains; there will be three at Susanne’s — they’re like mushroom clouds and atomic blasts. I am also involved with how you perceive abstract imagery and what is abstraction. I don’t believe there is nonobjective work. Children, for instance, don’t ask why when they see my work, but they are immediately attracted to it over and above something that is maybe very descriptive. This gestalt, this image making where you can see the whole thing and feel it, is an extremely important thing in making art. Art making is a matter of conversing. It’s a language, so how can I relate — how can I speak the language so that I’m understood? That’s what it’s about. It’s not that difficult.
MT: We found this interesting quote from you online: “The ability to step aside and contradict one’s self is the nature of art.” Do you still feel that’s a relevant statement?
Benglis: One has to have the freedom to do anything with regards to the thinking, and sometimes work does depend on a certain kind of distance from what you might have done prior to now. The ability to look back is as interesting as the ability to look forward, but the most interesting thing is the now.
Lynda Benglis runs through June 18 at Susanne Hilberry Gallery, 700 Livernois St., Ferndale, 248-541-4700. Nolan Simon is a local artist. Send comments to [email protected]