ASK MANY YOUNG ARTISTS about Lynda Benglis and they will probably mention either her notorious dildo "ad" that appeared in Artforum in 1974, or her late 1960s poured pieces. Unlike such Post-Minimalist peers as Richard Tuttle, Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman, Benglis lacks the bibliographic heft that usually eases an artist's path to widespread, career-long influence. Until this year, the only useful monograph on her was an excellent, if slim, catalogue published by Atlanta's High Museum on the occasion of her first retrospective, in 1991.1
In her essay for that catalogue, curator Susan Krane wrote that one of the reasons for her interest in assembling the retrospective was that, with "increasing frequency [Benglis was] being raised as a point of reference in discussions and during my studio visits with emerging artists."2 That was 18 years ago. Today, Benglis's multifaceted work, in mediums as varied as poured plastic, bronze, glass, neon light, ceramics, drawing and video, seems as connected as ever to the concerns of younger artists. Oil-slick rainbow cellophane and twisted, hand-squeezed surfaces sprayed with glitter and Day-Glo colors look quite contemporary. Like Matthew Barney, Charles Long and Kiki Smith, Benglis chooses materials for both their cultural associations and formal properties. In reviews of Benglis's shows, younger artists are mentioned as indebted to her, but when, in turn, younger artists are the subject, Benglis's name is often missing from the lists of their precursors. It's as if she vaguely prefigured rather than directly influenced them. In addition, she has been so consistently situated in an American tradition of art-making-among the Abstract Expressionists she admired, her Post-Minimalist fellow travelers and adherents of U.S. feminist art, of which she was wary-that it's easy to overlook her connections to shape-shifting artists of European origin, such as Franz West, Sigmar Polke and Louise Bourgeois.
BENGLIS'S CAREER had a meteoric beginning. Born in 1941 in Lake Charles, La., she arrived in New York in 1964 after finishing her BFA at Tulane University in New Orleans. Bykert Gallery was the first to show her work, in 1968; Paula Cooper mounted the artist's first solo in 1970 and represented her for many years. Between 1969 and '74 Benglis had 15 solos and participated in over 50 group exhibitions. She was featured in Life magazine in a 1970 article with a double-page photo spread that billed her as the heir to Pollock. In 1974 the New York Times Magazine published a cover article about her.
A 40-year retrospective, organized by and currently showing at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), aims to rectify the subsequent critical neglect of Benglis. It presents her as a central figure for contemporary art-not only in the breadth of her work, but also in her willingness to take on charged and conceptually ambitious subjects. The exhibition focuses on the '60s and '70s, when Benglis was most engaged in the linkage between painting and sculpture. The retrospective opens with the skinny, lozenge-shaped wall pieces of built-up multicolored encaustic layers that Benglis began making in 1966; the colored latex pours with which, beginning the following year, she both spoofed and honored Pollock's drips; the knotted and bowtie-shaped wall reliefs of the '70s; and her videos, mostly from the '70s. The '80s and '90s are represented by a few of her twisted metalized pleats (made with a gun that sprays molten metal onto chicken wire armatures) and two videos, one from each decade. There are, additionally, some eight works from the last 10 years, notably the installation The Graces (2003-05), three stacks of pink cast-polyurethane cones, each 8 or 9 feet tall, which in their delicacy and translucency manage to suggest both flower petals and smoke billowing from explosions.
Happily, for viewers interested in the breadth of Benglis's work, the stateside versions of the show are to be fortified with more work from the '80s and '90s, including a group of ceramics. (As of this writing the list is not yet finalized.)3 Benglis treats clay with respectful irreverence. As with so much of her work, the viewer fairly feels the making of her ceramics-the gouging, folding and throwing of the wet, resistant material. Glazes seem to be flung on with a nonchalance that brings to mind both T'ang dynasty tricolor glazes and Abstract Expressionism. Like Rachel Harrison's or Rebecca Warren's sculptures, Benglis's ceramic works have an emphatically handmade quality that conveys a sensuousness both libidinous and abject, while the colors evoke the glitz of commercial culture. Perhaps because these works are not so well known, their bodily and decorative associations still feel fresh; their addition will guarantee Benglis her due as a precursor to the "unmonumental" esthetic that dominates so much current art practice.