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Lynda Benglis

As The Stories Flow

Words BARBARA POLLACK

Photography WILLIAM JESS LAIRD

Pours, spills, and flows—these are fundamental to the vocabulary of American sculptor Lynda Benglis, a towering figure in contemporary art. Often, her works look like accidents—spilled milk— too spontaneous to be intentional.  But speaking to the artist by phone from her house in New Mexico, Benglis makes clear that achieving this “spontaneous” appearance took in-depth scientific research, studying the chemistry of her materials and experimenting with foundries. The 81-year-old artist arrived in New York in 1964, confident enough to become friends with Barnett Newman, Carl Andre, and Robert Morris.  She never tried to be “one of the boys” yet did not adopt an oppositional stance as a woman.  Still working today, this pioneer is never satisfied until she has pushed the limits of contemporary sculpture to new lengths, creating never-before-seen spectacles. 

Lynda Benglis at her Sante Fe studio.

Rivers and oceans, mud piles and mountains, Benglis has absorbed a lifetime of waterways and embraces their impact on her artmaking. Growing up surrounded by water in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and going on her first ocean voyage before she turned 11 with her grandmother to the family home in Greece. The artist recalls these experiences as if they happened yesterday.  She talks about making messy mud pies of pine needles and clay by the side of the bayou or finding a startling white magnolia tree planted in the middle of a dark green pine forest. There are memories of water-skiing, watching blue waves spew from the motorboat, or a fascination with algae and its magical phosphorescent glow. She learned to scuba dive in her 30s in California, remarking that this floating sensation returned her to a womb-like state.  

“I felt very close to the earth,” says Benglis. “The bayou was called ‘Contraband’ because that is where allegedly the pirate Jean LaFitte buried his treasure, and people were always looking for the contraband.” Contraband is also the name of her early sculpture, now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, a respiration of sorts. It was originally scheduled to be in a show at this museum in 1969 but was withdrawn by the artist because she disagreed with the installation. Contraband is a spill of red, orange, blue, lime green, and yellow, over 33 feet long; a lengthy scroll of rubber latex mixed with bright DayGlo pigments, more alive than Jackson Pollock’s studio floor. (The reference to the abstract master is not accidental. In 1970, Benglis was featured in Life Magazine with pictures capturing her “pour” just as Life in 1949 made Pollock famous with demonstrations of his “drip” technique.)

 

<Read the full essay from Issue Six>

 

This story is from Issue Six.

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