New Museum, NYC
Through June 19, 2011
Since the late '60s, Benglis has been making objects and creating performance works that nominally were developing a feminist slant on Minimalist and Process art — nominally being the key word here. Although her work incorporated many of the basic tenets of the movement, there was always something inherently sexual permeating the material nature of her work. Beginning with her early latex pour pieces, Fallen Paintings (1968), which removed the medium from the canvas and let it pool sensuously over the floor, to the more literal "Smile" (1974), a cast-lead double dildo that she famously posed with — inserted — for an Artforum ad, these early works, as well as single-channel videos (Female Sensibility, 1973) and sets of Polaroids of her and her cohort, Robert Morris, drew a fine line between the discipline of Minimalism and the discipline of Discipline.
Unlike her male peers, who were obsessed with boxes, tunnels, cages, and colossal Cor-Ten steel monoliths, Benglis focused on the inevitable entropy inherent in her material. A crucial choice: she worked with metals, polyurethanes, latexes, etc., that is, media that begin as liquid and then harden.
Critical to really understanding Benglis’s work is grasping how much the concept of stasis is involved. She froze the moment where something was fluid, organic, a pure potentiality, and then captured the latent tendencies of the matter when it had reached its potential. And stasis, indeed, is sexy. In an extended series of polyurethane, bronze, and aluminum pieces, she explored the making of monumental sculpture determined only by the limits of material. Even the titles suggest the erotic and sublime: "Wing" (1970) [pictured above], "Come" (1969-74), and "Eat Meat" (1973).
In her lesser efforts, as well, she manages to manipulate wax, cloth, and wire in ways that evoke a visceral feeling. The tableau "Paula’s Props" (1975), with its architectural columns, lead Jesus, and real and faux flora, suggests dungeon decor more than a Robert Kushner installation. To give the works the credit they are indeed due, it is instructive to compare them to the somewhat overblown theoretical works of Morris, whose incessant natterings-on about prisons and panopticons couched a similar penchant for an art of the physical. Benglis’s five-part work Phantom (1971) is a phosphorescent foam series installed in a separate room. Torrents of glowing foam spill from the walls, like forensically black-light-lit semen in trajectory. They evoke waterfalls, tendrils, ectoplasm, Michelangelo’s "Dying Slaves," or Rodin’s "Balzac." Walking into the darkened room becomes an encounter for all the senses — the subtle change of light as the material loses its phosphorescence, the smell of the urethane, the disorienting light. They are complete amongst themselves, perfect forms; yet the viewer’s presence seems to activate them (even if it doesn’t, really).
In her most recent series of black patina bronzes (Figure 2, Figure 5, Figure 6, 2009), Benglis uses industrial spray insulation and wire to create forms that evoke the shapes of countries and continents, as well as bullet-riddled, black flags waving above the ashes. Haunting, given our political clime, yet their primeval sensibility suggests hope, eternal. - Bradley Rubenstein
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.