Lynda Benglis: Material Master

“In terms of the mediums I choose, it’s a matter of a rounded diet. I can’t claim to be a master of anything. It's a diet. I’m just hungry and greedy!”—Lynda Benglis [Source]

From her early latex and polyurethane pours, to blown-glass masks, to a new collection of extruded ceramics, Lynda Benglis has proved herself as a sculpture savant, fluent in multiple mediums. Since her emergence in the male-dominated, Minimalist-centered New York art scene of the 1960s, Benglis has broken societal and material norms, tackling nontraditional, often unwieldy materials, and doing so (quite literally) with flying colors. As a new series of ceramics activate Cheim & Read’s Chelsea space in an eponymous exhibition, we take a look at Benglis through a material lens.

Ceramic: Benglis took ceramics classes while attending Newcomb College in New Orleans, a school known for pottery and craft. She picked up ceramics again in the ’90s, using an extruder, a mechanical device that produces perfectly rounded or squared tubes of clay, which she manipulated and finished off with rough surfaces. In her new work Benglis uses similar methods, employs a bright red and yellow palette, and leaves smooth surfaces with clean twists and cuts in the clay. She recently told Art in America, “When I do ceramics I feel a need to kind of wrestle with the material and be integrated with the form and the surface.”

Latex: Benglis’s latex floor paintings were created by throwing pigmented latex onto the floor in layers. Meant to reference bodily fluids and gestures, these works furthered a contemporary movement towards creating works that existed somewhere between painting and sculpture. The largest of these works, the 40-foot-long Contraband, was meant to be included in a 1969 show at the Whitney, but when curators became distressed over its stark contrast to nearby works by Robert Ryman and Richard Serra, Benglis took it out of the show.

Polyurethane: Created in a similar vein were Benglis’s polyurethane foam pours: voluminous, bubbling forms created through multiple colors that form a cluster. An extensive exploration into the medium led Benglis to a myriad of forms, created through pouring the foam over chicken wire, and even glow-in-the-dark sculptures that jumped off the wall and onto the floor, created with phosphorescent pigments. Her experimentation with polyurethane, begun in the late ’60s, has continued into recent years.

Beeswax: In the late ’60s and early ’70s Benglis created a series of totem-like sculptures through dripping beeswax and resin onto a masonite board. The works are intriguingly ambiguous in terms of process and form and emphasize her interest in texture.

Bronze, Aluminum, Lead: Following her success with polyurethane foam, Benglis realized the beauty in these works lay in their form and texture, which could be preserved through creating casts in metal. Experimenting with finish and surface, she began a tradition of casting the works to create monumental piles of bronze and lead, and aluminum sculptures that seem to defy gravity as they jump off the wall.

Gold Leaf: Out of her interest in surface, Benglis has covered multiple mediums with gold leaf, applying it directly onto chicken wire, and adding a new sense of value to the works with 24-karat sheets.

Glass: In 2010 Benglis was granted a residency at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington. Coinciding with her newfound interest in African masks, embracing them for their aesthetic beauty rather than Modern art connotations, she created a series of blown-glass masks. The elongated forms evoke traditional masks and spark a dialogue on the traditions of glass-making.

“Lynda Benglis” is on view at Cheim & Read, New York, Jan. 16th–Feb. 15th.

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