Alma Ruiz: I’d like to start our conversation with the present. I know that you’ve been working steadily since the beginning of your career — what are you doing right now?
Lynda Benglis: I’m working on fountains. This is my main focus in the present day.
AR: Where did this direction come from?
LB: Since the early ’80s I have been interested in this kind of form. I did a print in Chicago that was called North South East West because it had the four planes, and I finally completed it 30 years later, in 2009. I was influenced by the shape of the Egyptian obelisk. I had already presented the cantilevers all over America in different museums. At that time I was working with metals and bronze, and what is in the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles are the first cantilevered pieces with phosphorescent (Phantom, 1971). I don’t like to backtrack, I like to go forward, because what I’m feeling now represents me in relationship to how I view the time and what’s happening right now. Each time is interpreted differently, according to the generation, the age, the culture. We are able to historically mark these things as artists, to represent culture as writers, painters, sculptors, critics. What survives is the information that represents the time — and then the people that are viewing it may see it differently, and you can’t control that.
AR: Is this print of a fountain entitled North South East West related to the fountain that you realized in Dublin at the Irish Museum of Art in 2009 or is it a different one?
LB: That one was made in the ’80s. In the beginning of the ’80s I started thinking that I really must do something with water. I grew up surrounded by water: Louisiana is below sea level and very early I went to Greece on a boat, across the Atlantic, to a remote island. Water is an element that is in my blood, and I wanted to do something related to rocks and landscape…
AR: After the fountains, did you go back to work on some of the ideas you had previously or did you start exploring new ones?
LB: After that, the idea was to work on smaller sculptures. I had some material leftover in my studio in Long Island that I wasn’t able to cast until one or two years later, but I was able to envision it. I showed it then in Miami. I did other little fountains that were based on atomic explosions. The first fountains were poured polyurethane; the second were thrown polyurethane, linearly built up. Both were very fluent and suggested a natural formation.
Patrick Steffen: What’s your main interest in creating a sculpture of a fountain?
LB: I like the idea of scale: it’s always human. It has to do with texture in relationship to architecture and to the material itself. You can only throw as large as your body allows; the physical gesture needs the confirmation of the material, be it large or small… There is a scale implication, and all my work is very sensitive to that aspect. We all have a body that has an extension within a certain perimeter, and it’s essential to emotively visualize gravity, weight and the relationship of the figure to the ground. All these things are psychologically very important in my work.
AR: This is a very important notion: human scale and how you use the body in your work. I think this is one of the reasons why we identify with your work. Do you agree?
LB: That’s correct, and there is also a lot of movement that makes it easier to identify. Even animals can relate to my work if there is movement implied.
AR: At the MOCA retrospective, your “Figures” series, when they were on the floor, looked like crouching animals (I clearly had this feeling). When hung on the wall, they transformed into underwater formations. To what are these figures related in origin?
LB: They are related to scuba diving. Diving has opened up a completely new visual area to me. In the water we all feel the buoyancy, as if we were in the womb of our mother, and all my art has always being involved with that: an antigravity feeling, a confirmation that we have a sense of another special emotive reality in the way we do, see and feel things.
AR: It’s interesting to see how the water element is important in your work. Geography also seems to be very influential in your research, as you have studios in many different parts of the world — the US, Europe and Asia. How did your relationship with India start?
LB: Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Morris recommended it to me. That was in the late ’70s. I arrived there in 1979 and that was an extraordinary time for my growth. It’s like going to a different room in your home. My home is the world.
AR: Did you make specific artworks in India that you wouldn’t do in the US or in Europe?
LB: In India I can easily look at images that I don’t find elsewhere. In relation to certain surfaces and materials, in India they have some of the purest marble; also the idea of working with stainless steel came there as well as that of melting huge pots of wax outside. There is a process that is possible only in some places and not in others. I experimented with carving bricks, with large pieces (more than five meters, three meters), a trapezoidal wall integrated in the landscape. Here I would have done it in a different way, more limited. In India I can take certain chances that are not possible here because of our laws and rules.
AR: This retrospective has traveled to six different museums in the Netherlands, Ireland, France and the US. It is taking a lot of your time. Now that the exhibition will end its tour what are your plans for the future?
LB: The show has been going on for two years. I will take a break in my home in Greece. But I plan my work passively, not aggressively. I have to let it come to me. Lately some mixed images have been coming to me, some words. That has never happened to me and it could be a new path. They come to me before I fall asleep, all these images rush in, and this is a way for the mind to unload itself, to clear itself, to get rid of the garbage. It’s very nourishing. I think an artist has to find this state of mind; you can’t direct it.
AR: In the exhibition here at MOCA we see lot of work from the past in one location. Did this situation create more questions for you?
LB: I had to wait until I saw the “Figures” on the wall, and I still don’t know if I want to go further with these images in terms of materials and surfaces. I go back and forth. There’s a kind of explosive quality: they explode and implode in an embryonic totem form. Then things become either a butterfly, a tree, a landscape, a cloud, a mountain, eroded volcanic lava. I go back and forth from something that is very static and pictorial to something that contradicts itself. I’m interested in questioning how we feel this. We have these feelings of contraction and expansion in our body and mind.
PS: Is there a logic to your research process?
LB: There is not a real logic to my work, but I’m always asking questions. I’m interested in the idea of Gestalt, how you read something or not, the process, the edges. I’m always interested in the contradiction of the illusion of the process. It’s not an A-B-C-D process. It’s not logical. I’m interested in an open reading, not in a closed context. At one point minimal artists started thinking in closed systems — they wanted a certain purity and logic, and the process to be read. I think that everything is open; I realized that there is not such a thing as containment. Science itself is based on open questioning and open ideas and not on contained ideas. Art is based on continually asking questions. This is what I try to do in my work.
AR: Let’s go back to the past. What were your expectations when you moved to New York in 1964, after you graduated from Newcomb College (now part of Tulane University)?
LB: I had no expectations. I was just so excited to learn as much as I could, and I still feel that way today. I was very lucky. Luck has a lot to do with it. Everybody has talent, but positioning yourself, recognizing what your questions are and to whom you need to ask them is essential to achieving a result. I was with Michael Goldberg, Barnett Newman, Joan Mitchell and all these artists. I was young so I could learn. That’s what we need to do today: integrate young and old movements.
AR: You were part of a group of artists that did a lot of significant work in the ’70s. It was a very experimental decade. A lot of young artists and curators are trying to go back and analyze that period. Why do you think people are interested in the ’70s today?
LB: The ’70s was a wide open period that began a sense that art could be anything and anybody could experiment in any field. It was contextual — there were artists experimenting in New York, in California, in Europe, and certain movements appeared to gain recognition because of the ideas that they were challenging. My own work was always related to process, material, ideas and vision. How do you make images? What are images? Everybody was asking these same questions, just expressing them differently. Today is still the same, though people seem to be more stylistic. What is happening is a matter of taking objects from the culture, like Joseph Cornell started doing… Alexis Smith has continued that — working on icons. Investigating the deterioration of the time is in the genes of art.
AR: Were you concerned about how certain materials in your work would react after 20 or 30 years?
LB: Yes, that was always a concern of mine: the material question and the lasting quality. As it was when I presented images such as Eat Meat (1969-75), Quartered Meteor (1969) and Wing (1970) at the Guggenheim. I really wanted to preserve those.
AR: Was the art market as essential in the ’70s as it is today?
LB: Artists are business people — they are subject to the market. But back in our time the market was not thought about the way it is today. I mocked it. When the price of gold went up, I wanted to make a pure gold dildo. I did a gold-plated one but it didn’t look good. I wanted a solid one, and someone almost bought the idea. At that time it would have cost $20,000, and today much more than that.
AR: During your career you were involved with many movements like minimal art and conceptual art; you were part of the feminist movement too, when there was this idea about process form. But you never really belonged to one group. It seems to me that you’ve remained your own person. You have this very fluid quality.
LB: I understood very early by studying philosophy, thinking and logic that to take any particular idea and stick to it for 50 or 60 years is simply boring — really boring! Why should I stick to one idea? Nobody possesses the truth anyway.
PS: In your recent monograph Dave Hickey wrote about your early racy photos placed as ads: “Looking back on these photographs today, she seems to be standing naked in the gathering dusk, in the last moment when ‘the artist as pin-up’ might seem like a fun, sexy thing to do.” What connection did these ads have with the abstract, colorful work you were doing at the time in latex, wax, foam and so on?
LB: None. For instance, I found the dildo on 42nd Street, and I wanted to make it in different materials and to work with it in gold, then with glass. But no one would back it because at that time I wasn’t well known. So, I realized that I had to make a statement about the feminist aspect. There was not enough humor, and women were misunderstood as artists and marginalized. I had to place some humor without complaining, and I had to take power by taking a position that did not question the situation but just went on with my ideas: walking the line with my ideas. I had to do what I felt was really the right thing to do.
PS: Almost 40 years later, how do you think feminism in contemporary art has changed?
LB: I think it’s now accepted. I think it was a dirty word at that time — no one really liked it, and all the guys involved in art hated the idea of feminism. Only some very brave Joans of Arc were out there to fight, carrying the flag and going to the meetings. For me going to meetings was a great waste of time — I just felt that I needed to do my art rather than participate in meetings. But I admired women like Vera G. List. She was a collector who gave me an opportunity to make a couple of art pieces, including one for her bathroom!
AR: You were very close to Robert Morris, Richard Serra and Richard Tuttle. How did they feel about your engagement with the feminist movement? Did they give you a hard time?
LB: No, because I was interested in what was happening and what they were doing. I never made judgments. It’s important not to make judgments in the process of art making and to accept people as they are. There is no right and wrong in art.
AR: Abstract expressionism was very male dominated. Most of those artists were married, but their wives were kept separate from their work. When your generation came, the minimalists and conceptualists found themselves with a generation of successful women artists. So for them it wasn’t easy…
LB: You should ask them! They will only smile and lie… I’m just joking! For me they were all very open, and I was open to what they were doing and genuinely interested. I asked the right questions and they answered me. I was accepted in that sense.
PS: Do you still recognize yourself in the 1974 giant dildo Artforum advertisement?
LB: That’s me, I remember how I was feeling then, I remember I wanted to project a very tough and perfect male and female image that could end all the ideas of degradable pin-up models. Not everyone understood what I wanted to do. Andy Warhol wanted me to be in one of his early films, and this is what set me off. He wanted me to act with a handsome and cute guy from Scotland. He was blond, I was dark haired, and Andy Warhol wanted to do a love scene. I began to think about it, resisting the idea of being a groupie. And I thought: I don’t want to be an object. I want to do something in terms of the feminine situation.
AR: In the ’70s you were dealing with sexual identity a lot.
LB: The video The Amazing Bow Wow that I did in 1976, featuring the hermaphroditic creature, was my final statement about sexual identity. I have to thank Rena Small, who played the Bow Wow, and Stanton Kaye: the three of us really did it together. It was a painful piece of art, and after that I couldn’t deal with it anymore — I felt vulnerable. The pain of sex and rejection, the ambiguity, the fear of being silenced in any culture… It took me a year and a half to edit it. It was so painful that I said to myself: “That’s it!”
AR: You had a period, from 1972 to 1976, in which you also made a lot of videos. Have you made any new videos since?
LB: I did a video in the ’90s based on the rhythm of the mouth and the eyes as a sort of drumming inspired by the traditional Indian dance Kathakali. More recently I did a video dedicated to a musician in India. I recorded her cremation. The process is about the timing of cremating, her body and the fire. Emotively I haven’t edited it, but the editing process might not be interesting or necessary. I wanted to record the people who attended the ceremony by the river, the nature, the wood…
PS: Where did you get the initial impulse to make art?
LB: I think my mother could have been a terrific artist — she was very creative. I didn’t understand why she didn’t go on. Somehow my mother had failed and this taught me something. To choose to be an artist has not so much to do with talent but rather with the need, the feeling you have to do it. I consciously want to know, and that’s very important to me. I constantly challenge myself…
PS: In his autobiographical poem Poeta delle Ceneri (1966) Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote: “I want to express myself by throwing my body into the fight.” Your strong physical engagement reminds me of his words.
LB: I like that. It’s been a constant fight for me since early on, when I was a kid in school, and I had this image of me wrestling with my sheets — I wanted to wrestle with something. It’s a pure physical approach, but at the same time it’s a clear mental position. If you don’t do that, you are constantly in limbo. You are afraid. You are paranoid. If you don’t create, you remain static.
PS: Are you interested in any particular young artists today?
LB: I’ve been spending a lot of time in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There are many young artists there that are showing their works at the 222 Shelby Street gallery run by Tom Tavelli — like Lisa Wederquist. Sometimes it’s not the age of the artists, but how they make the information relevant, like Clytie Alexander, working in Santa Fe and New York. Rena Small is also doing performances as a ventriloquist in her own way: it’s madness. I’m interested in these things that allow energy to get out. There is a kind of hysterical element going on in art, which I appreciate. There is also a young Indian artist, Mithu Sen, that I follow and like very much. I met her two years ago in Bombay. She is passionate about questioning the rules of sexuality and feminism, engaging drawing, sculpture, collage and installation. I can relate to her work even if she doesn’t use the same media as I do and is more graphic than me. Her artwork has melody and I like that.
Alma Ruiz is Senior Curator at MOCA, Los Angeles.
Patrick Steffen is Flash Art Los Angeles Editor.
Lynda Benglis was born in 1941 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She lives and works between New York, Santa Fe, Kastelorizo, (Greece) and Ahmedabad (India).