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Lynda Benglis, feminist artist
With work from the Peacock series, India, 1979Courtesy of the artist and Cheim & Read, New York

Lynda Benglis: ‘You cannot kill creativity’

She caught the art world’s attention by posing with nothing but a dildo – 40 years on, one of the most prolific feminist artists talks challenging ideas, money and male domination

Feminist icon and art provocateur Lynda Benglis astounded the world when in 1974 she photographed herself in the raw for Centrefold in Artforum, wearing nothing but cateye sunglasses and clutching a dildo against her groin in a stand against male-domination in the art world. Somewhat prompting her significance, some of the editors quit the magazine in protest. Benglis, now 73-years old, prolific in name and revolutionary in nature, emerged as part of a new generation of artists fashioning original approaches to sculpture and painting in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop Art.

Now, 50 years on, she has generated a momentous body of work discussing ideas of femininity and masculinity, nature and forms with countless different unconventional materials – from the labial-like beeswax piece Embryo I and her huge latex ‘floor paintings’ to Female Sensibility, a sensual video piece which sees Benglis kissing colleague Marilyn Lenkowsky in response to the 70s belief in a necessary ‘lesbian phase’ for ‘female artistic sensibility’. Even though she views all her works as either “drawings or paintings”, it is with her unusual choices for mediums that provoke differing feelings that are far from simply a sketch or a canvas. Her monumental structures and radical sculptures have won her the attentions and gratifications of artists like John Baldessari and Cindy Sherman who, referring to her photo in Artforum, said, “She kicked ass!”

This month she will exhibit the largest presentation of her work in the UK yet, with approximately 50 pieces on show, spanning the entirety of her career to date. The exhibition will hold several new pieces, like her recent ceramic and polyurethane works, along with several paper molds, which will be shown publicly for the first time. Ahead of the occasion, she told us how the industry’s changed, that Artforum piece and gives us some compelling advice.

Your career has spanned over 48 years and you have made a lot of work challenging the male ethos and male domination in the art world, especially in the 70s, has sexism in the industry changed?

Lynda Benglis: I don’t think of the art world now as being male dominated. There are so many woman artists since I began and I really think of both energy and talent as coming from both men and women equally. Women feel their bodies differently from men because they have different resources. I did think specifically always about the politics but I found I needed to comment at different times in my life because it seemed to be an issue, however most of the women artists I know that do work think of themselves as empowered by themselves and as women artists. It’s not really an issue now.

I remember many times I was maybe one of two women artists in an important exhibition. The numbers have changed and gone up, and there were a lot of talks and meetings. I didn’t happen to go to the meetings because I’m not really a meetings person, but if a person happens to be a woman, the confidence level has to be there in order to make the presentation of art because it’s really about art – not about whether it’s a woman or a man. It’s an issue wherever there is inequality and there are still issues in different areas of the world that exist and it is an issue. As an art form women have always made art, whether they were under bondage or not, they have always created. You cannot kill creativity.

“I don’t think of the art world now as being male dominated. There are so many woman artists since I began and I really think of both energy and talent as coming from both men and women equally. Women feel their bodies differently from men because they have different resources” – Lynda Benglis

Have you noticed anything else in the art industry change over this time?

Lynda Benglis: Yes. I’ve heard about it quite a bit that, as art is being publicised, it’s more about money since the 80s. It’s not all about it, but there are so many promoters of the situation and the talk is always about money. I think when one does have the money to produce work, which is needed, then one should do it, but to publicise it in that way and context is not of my generation. I don’t think we ever thought about the money aspect as we were happy to do it, and I think most artists of that time developed in that way. There are perhaps a lot of artists that are making works that have to do with the context and realisation of money.

You’ve been described many times as controversial, notably for Centrefold, did you feel what you were doing was controversial at the time?

Lynda Benglis: I knew it was a raw thing to do, even though it’s plastic [the dildo]! I wanted to do something that was very humanistic to challenge the ideas that I was dealing with. I knew it would be a potent image and a challenge to my work, but I felt I had to do it at that time. That was the right time in terms of the medium and Artforum was the right magazine. I had no doubt that I had to do it in the right way and it had to be the right photo, so I worked on it quite a bit.

Do you feel the piece in particular made a positive impact in terms of gender equality in the art world?

Lynda Benglis: People, particularly women, tell me that and I think that’s positive. I made them feel good about the image that wasn’t a threat or a challenge, but was an understanding that it was okay – we don’t any longer have to be the victim of the gaze. In other words, this work looked back at you, that famous saying. That’s what I intended to do. 

In your new exhibition, there’s going to be over 50 pieces of work exhibited – do you have a favourite piece?

Lynda Benglis: Well, they’re pretty much all my favourites because the intensity of something very small and something very large is usually the same in a strange way. Although the ideas may be similar as well, the intensity and ideas play off of one another so one follows the ideas and contexts to do with the variation in materials. I’m always surprised when I see a show – one that does have such a broad history – that it does seem like somebody else [curated] them. I always think, ‘well, here I’m doing it this way but then I did it that way’. Then I can identify that it is me instead of someone else.

When you see such a large show you feel like someone else did them?

Lynda Benglis: I feel there’s such a distance in the way it was done and how it was done. I remember doing it and I remember the time and the way these works mark the time and the origination and history, and they very much reflect the time we were in. So I was really always experimenting with different similar ideas all through the ages here. I’m 73-years old and the times are very different, but I guess I allowed to become more sophisticated because I had so many opportunities to work through my growing experience with various different materials.

So over the past 50 years, you’ve divided your time between studios in New York, Santa Fe, Ahmedabad in India and Kastelorizo in Greece, how have these places influenced your practice?

Lynda Benglis: You can say you are what you eat or you are where you are. I think everything we do comes into the experience of the expression, absolutely.

You’ve worked with uncountable materials, from polyurethane foam, glass, bronze and stainless steel to beeswax and poured latex, why do you not limit yourself to one medium?

Lynda Benglis: I think mediums are all about form. They’re mediums that I can make sketch as I think of myself as doing drawings and paintings in these different mediums. I think of them as forms from nature, about nature and having illusion. Some are dependent on the walls, some are dependent on the floor and some are outside pieces.

What has been the best or biggest thing you’ve learned throughout your career? 

Lynda Benglis: To be yourself. If I’m teaching I encourage those young artists to find their own ‘handwriting’, so to speak, to find themselves and to be strong enough to express their ideas. 

Lynda Benglis will be on show at the Hepworth Wakefield from 6 February – 1 July