Lynda Benglis, born in 1941 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, is an American artist whose work defies easy categorization. Despite her formal education in painting and ceramics at Newcomb College, New Orleans, her body of work transcends conventional categorization.
In the 1960s, shortly after moving to New York, she found her artistic identity by departing from traditional canvas-bound painting. Instead, she let her art evolve organically, shaping itself through the interplay of materials in her works. In an interview with The Art Story, Benglis attributes her early artistic inspiration and radical thinking back to central childhood influences - her grandmother and father. Her innate adeptness in comprehending and working with materials was cultivated through her upbringing amidst the building materials her father sold: an assortment of colours, plastics, laminates and wood. Additionally, her extended stays in Greece exposed her to the feminist ideals of her grandmother, who unveiled a world far more expansive than the one she knew in Louisiana.
During a discourse at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Benglis recalls a New York party where Andy Warhol invited her and her boyfriend to appear nude in a film. This experience led her to the realization that she didn't want to be reduced to “an object in his film,” sparking her curiosity in media and heightening her awareness of how male dominance shaped the confines of the art world. With the materials she employed, she explored how her art could also reflect feminist perspectives in the context of a male-dominated art world in resonance with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Gender Equality.
The "Benglis ad" in Artforum magazine in 1974 is an infamous coloured photograph of the 32-year-old artist, entirely nude except for a pair of rhinestone sunglasses, holding an oversized dildo between her legs. The photograph highlights Benglis’s oiled skin, styled hair, flirtatious hip tilt, prominent lips, and androgynous upper body, all contributing to a sense of perfection, as stated in The New York Times. However, what continues to be arresting are the symbolic nuances of wielding the phallic form—an assertion of empowerment, entitlement, assertiveness, and directness. These qualities are frequently misconstrued as traits associated only with men. The image remains a catalyst for discussing gender bias within the art realm.
Throughout the 1970s, its impact provoked various reactions, from amusement to indignation. It is believed five associate editors at Art Forum were outraged, and two of whom were women resigned after the episode. This gave rise to investigations into the persistent sexism within New York's artistic circles, contemplations on the role of pornography in modern culture, and deep explorations of the very essence of feminism.
Over time, her work became more entrenched in feminist issues, and her style produced a body of groundbreaking videos in the mid-1970s. The Amazing Bow Wow is a tragic narrative revolving around a hermaphroditic dog forced into a role as a sideshow attraction, facing a life as a carnival oddity. Issues arise for Bow Wow, the dog, when its owners, Babu (played by Stanton Kaye) and Rexina (played by Lynda Benglis), who runs a small-time carnival, realize that the dog possesses not only the ability to communicate but also remarkable intelligence. These newfound abilities stir fear and envy in Babu while nurturing affection and a desire to protect Rexina.
As Bow Wow’s bond with Rexina takes on a complex, almost sexual nature, Babu’s response takes a dark turn. In an unsettling twist of fate, he tries to castrate the dog but cuts off his tongue instead. Through satire, Benglis skillfully disrupts the conventional understanding of the Oedipus complex. In this narrative, the father's pursuit to castrate his ‘son’ affirms the child’s identity as female. This disturbing motive aims to suppress the developing incestuous undertones noticed by the father. The movie has an open-ended conclusion to sexual identity and gender definitions.
Her other artworks include Blatt, where she poured swirls of coloured pigment liquid latex onto the floor and let it dry. The blobs and bubbles remained horizontal, true to the material’s natural properties. For Contraband, Benglis poured pigmented latex directly onto the floor, collapsing the boundaries between painting and sculpture. An excerpt from the MoMA characterizes her technique as the “pours,” which resemble paintings yet venture off the wall to inhabit the realm of sculpture. Minimalism was dominant in the ‘60s, yet she fearlessly defied the norm by employing unconventional materials such as poured latex, polyurethane, foam, metal, dripping wax, and glitter.
Lynda Benglis artistic contributions had long remained under the radar, with scant attention from critics and a surprising scarcity of major individual showcases. In recent years, retrospectives have been held at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (2009), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2011) and the Hepworth Wakefield, West Yorkshire (2015). Her work has also been included in the seminal 2007 exhibition, “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at MOCA, Los Angeles.
She has extensively delved into the intersections of media and gender, pushing boundaries with her audacious, corporeal, and tangible creations.