Lynda Benglis and Louise Bourgeois: Circa 1970, at Cheim & Read
June 21 to August 31, 2007
547 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues,
New York City, 212 242 7727
A version of this article appeared in the New York Sun, June 28 2007 under the title “Sogginess With an Edge”
Beyond the graphic-design friendliness of their common initials and the fact that they exhibit with the same gallery, bringing together Louise Bourgeois and Lynda Benglis is a curatorial natural. They are both inveterate explorers of sculpture’s soggy underbelly, doyennes of dark sexuality and the nebulous space between the personal and the universal.
But the coupling is not without edge: These are women of markedly different generations whose attitudes towards the body and the sculptural object come to bear in relation to their work. Ms. Bourgeois, the older artist by thirty years, is steeped in Surrealism and the ethnographic interests of her husband, the art historian Robert Goldwater, while Ms. Benglis is of the generation of conceptual artists who emerged in the wake of minimal art and Pop Art. They are, variously, self-consciously out of time and of their time. Still, this a show where you often have to check the wall label because of the degree of overlap in material quality and form vocabulary of these two artists. It is a coupling, in other words, underwritten by formalism, despite the fact that the art is often anti-formalist in intention and effect.
Well known photographs of the artists, hung together in the first room, a chapel-like antechamber to the gallery proper, are an essay in compare and contrast. Duane Michael’s “Portrait of Louise Bourgeois in her Chelsea home” (1980) show a demur, matronly, almost shrinking voilet housewife in a traditional setting that could as easily be in her native France, except that she is dressed in a weird sculptural vest of protruding orbs. She is a kind of latter-day Artemis of Ephesus, whereas Ms. Benglis relates more to Pan in her notorious double page spread from the November 1974 issue of Artforum in which provocatively she poses hand on hip, naked, greased up Hustler-magazine style, and sporting a mammoth dildo between her legs.
The one self-image is covert (subtle, despite its weirdness, and quietly subsersive), the other overt—a radical, in your face gesture. The older artist is in her eponymously bourgeois setting, the other in the virutal realm of the mass media (at least in its artworld manifestation). Ms. Bourgeois is gendered where Ms. Benglis is sexed. And while they are both fully conscious of the fact that their adopted signifiers are external and conditioning, the one artist is saying that her self-fabricated vestment is primal, its meanings diffuse and nebulous, the other is saying that hers is social, and very literally to the point.
Just next to the Benglis ad is a shelf of five bronze elements by Ms. Bourgeois, “Untitled” (1970-72). They are vaguely phallic maybe, but you would not want them put to use like Ms. Benglis’s sex toy – which Ms. Benglis cast, incidentally, in bronze, as “Smile” (1974) the double-ended implement forming a smiley mouth – as Ms. Bourgeois forms are rusty looking and menacingly jagged. More to the unphallic point, the fact that they are in a series spreads out their variable meanings: They become a family of forms, possibly digits. Where the younger artist is playing with a mass-produced form, the older is evoking a sense of the primitive and pre-industrial. One is an object that meets a market need, the other some timeless ritual.
Another pairing of works in this first room signals the chief formal and psychological shared concern of the two artists: spillage. They are both devoted to gunge and splatter, to a sense of matter oozing out, visceral and decentered. Ms. Benglis’s “Quartered Meteor” (1969) in lead has a pile of gooey forms caught in arrested flow. Installed in the corner of the room, the implied sense is that the room has been built around it, that the flow would otherwise continue in another three directions. It is like a river of lava, a puddle coming out towards us. “Janus Fleuri” (1968) by Ms. Bourgeois also has a sense of something cracked open and revealing its innards. A bronze object suspended on a wire, it is essentially abstract though figural, with connotations of a skull or a torso—or for that matter a croissant. But despite Ms. Benglis’s referencing an object – a meteor – there is an essential difference between these two works, which signals contrasting generational ideas about sculpture between the two artists: Ms. Bourgois’s piece is an object, Ms. Benglis’s a process. They are both about transition, stuff, movement, but in sculptural terms Ms. Bourgeois has done something to [end italic] a thing whereas Ms. Benglis has generated a thing in the process of performing an action. One has shaped material, the other has released it.
Both have an affection for bronze as much for its ambiguities as for its sense of permanence and luster. Bronze, in their handling, make a monument out of fluid dissolute forms. Its alternating rough and smooth captures the contrast as well as the confusion between internal and external. This comes across in several pairings of the women’s sculptures, such as Ms. Benglis’s “Come” (1974) and Ms. Bourgeois’s “End of Softness” (1967). Both sculptures have a sticky wet look that speaks to the sexual politics of their moment, as if belligerently to identify such sculptural attributes as centeredness and definition as masculine. But again, on closer inspection, the works are traveling in different directions. Where “Come” is a molten lump dripping out, “End of Softness” is a swirling, churning mass, hardening and coming together. If they were like paintings you’d say that the Benglis is a Jackson Pollock, spreading all over, whereas the Bourgeous is a Soutine, tightening into a gestalt.
The primitive and archaic are never far from the surface in Ms. Bourgeois’s sculpture. But this aspiration to the timeless is, ironically, very of her time: She is deeply steeped in the aesthetics of abstract Surrealism. Her softness may have feminist implications, but it relates equally to the biomorphism of Arp and the camambert cheese watches of Dalí—no feminist he! Her “soft landscapes” like “Avenza” (1968-69), an agglomeration of breast-like orbs cast in perpetually sticky-looking latex, plays on a notion of woman as landscape, of “mother nature,” that is as deeply traditional as it is Surrealistist and as it is or perhaps is not feminist. She has said, in relation to these works, that “Our own body could be considered, from a topographical point-of-view, a land with mounds and valleys and caves and holes,” a statement that sits well with the woman-as-landscape romanticism of Henry Moore.
Ms. Benglis also plays with the womanliness of landscape idioms in her pancake puddles and sausage figure, but in contrast to Ms. Bourgois’s brooding metaphysics she is always blessed by brashness. Her materials are tacky in the stylistic as well as the literal sense: the stickiness, at once compelling and disagreeable, she shares with Ms. Bourgeois, but the variously Pop and postminimal sensibility is very much her own, or rather, of her own generation. It relates to Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures, while the droopy, flimsy awkwardness of her tubular knot pieces, like “Oscar” (1974) put you in mind on the felt or leather arrangements of Robert Morris or Richard Serra.
These male counterparts notwithstanding, Ms. Benglis and Ms. Bourgeois stand out as pioneers of a feminist aesthetic. Whether ominous and sacral, like Ms. Bourgeois, or sexy and fun, like Ms. Benglis, they are inspiring as artists intent upon personal and collective liberation. To Robert Pincus-Witten, a critic with long associations with both artists who writes a sparky, polemical introduction in the exhibition catalogue, “B&B” as he dubs them “re-affirm art’s power as a weapon in the resistance of today’s resurgent political and religious fundamentalism.”