Connecting the Threads: Lynda Benglis and Rodarte

NMWA’s exhibition Rodarte celebrates the innovative American fashion house, founded by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy. The show—open until February 10, 2019—is a survey of the designers’ visionary concepts, impeccable craftsmanship, and impact on the fashion industry. The dresses on view share visual appeal and many common threads with works in NMWA’s collection. From technique to theme, dive into five innovative works by artists at NMWA in this series, “Connecting the Threads.”

Material Metamorphosis 

Lynda Benglis's sculpture is a shining knot mounted on the wall made out of bronze, zinc, copper, aluminum, wire that has been manipulated to appear light as a bow.

Lynda Benglis, Eridanus, 1984. Bronze, zinc, copper, aluminum, wire, 58 x 48 x 27 in.; © Lynda Benglis; Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Lynda Benglis (b. 1941) has always been interested in the idea of transformation. She reinvented art forms as a pioneer creating sculptures out of paint, melted wax, and latex, thus blurring the boundaries between painting and sculpture. She took on the rules of the art world with her infamous 1974 Artforum ad, which interrogated the lack of attention paid to work by women artists. And she “bedazzled Minimalism,” imbuing the staid, masculine genre with color and shine. Her work Eridanus (1984), currently on view at NMWA, continues this interest in completely transforming material. In the wall-mounted sculpture, bronze, zinc, copper, aluminum, and wire are manipulated to appear light as knotted fabric, a bow floating on the wall. Thus, in the hands of Benglis, tough industrial material becomes delicate and decorative.

Eridanus is often read in a feminist context, as a piece working to redefine mainstream perceptions of femininity through craft and material. Her choice to rework a typically masculine material into a shining bow of feminine associations can’t be overlooked. But Benglis has stated, “I am a permissive artist. I allow things to happen. I believe the viewer is half the work.” This sentiment allows the piece itself to continually transform—to intrigue and challenge each set of eyes that come upon it.

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For Rodarte, the Mulleavys transform simple fabrics to evoke emotion and ideas. For example, inspired by a trip to Death Valley, their California Condor Spring/Summer 2010 collection underscored their use of narrative and nontraditional techniques to convey complex ideas. To evoke a futuristic desert landscape for this line, the Mulleavys distressed their materials—dyed cheesecloth, leather, crystals, macramé, and plastic—by painting, burning, shredding, and sandpapering them. These transformed materials encase the figure in a loosely plaited network of pattern and texture.

Photo © Tony Powell. 2018 NMWA Rodarte Opening. November 8_ 2018-27

Selections from Rodarte's Spring/Summer 2010 Collection on view at NMWA; Photo by Tony Powell

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Close up of selections from Rodarte's Spring/Summer 2010 Collection on view at NMWA; Photo by Alicia Gregory

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Close up of selections from Rodarte's Spring/Summer 2010 Collection on view at NMWA; Photo by Alicia Gregory

Connecting the Threads: Lynda Benglis and Rodarte

Close up of selections from Rodarte's Spring/Summer 2010 Collection on view at NMWA; Photo by Alicia Gregory

Connecting the Threads: Lynda Benglis and Rodarte

Rodarte exhibition installation view at NMWA; Photo by Floto+Warner

In 2010, the Mulleavys designed and created the ballet costumes for the Academy Award–winning film Black Swan. Natalie Portman, the film’s star, recommended them to director Darren Aronofsky, recognizing the synergy between the psychological horror film and the elegant yet visceral balletic designs of Rodarte’s Fall/Winter 2008 collection. The Mulleavys conducted extensive research into the history of ballet and sociopolitical developments surrounding ballet and the female body. As Kate explains, “The dark and extremely beautiful transformation in ‘Swan Lake’ mirrors the physical transformation that the ballerina goes through in order to perform.”

—Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Material Deception: Honor Freeman and Lynda Benglis

Two sculptures on view in NMWA’s third-floor galleries have much in common despite strong visual differences. Eridanus (1984) by Lynda Benglis is a large metal work that appears twisted and hung like a piece of fabric. Honor Freeman’s Tupperware—Transforming a Chaotic Kitchen (2008) is a set of realistic porcelain replicas of early Tupperware products.

Materials and Meaning

A visitor gazes at Lynda Benglis’s Eridanus at NMWA

A visitor gazes at Lynda Benglis’s Eridanus at NMWA

Both sculptures highlight conflicts between material, appearance, and subject to create meaning. Benglis’s use of metal evokes Minimalist sculpture, a genre strongly associated with male artists. The hardness and heaviness of metal contrasts with the work’s soft, fabric-like appearance. By manipulating metal to look like fabric, the artist combats the frequent stereotyping of female artists’ work as soft, feminine, and delicate—whereas even similar work by men is viewed differently.

Freeman’s work also juxtaposes material and appearance. The use of porcelain, a fine art material, to create 59 representations of common household Tupperware plays with traditional distinctions between gender, quality, and craft. The elevation of Tupperware to display-worthy status mirrors the elevation of ceramics and other craft works to the status of fine art.

Beauty and Artifice

These works also share themes of artifice and beautification. In Eridanus, the illusion of shimmering silver fabric is disrupted by one rust-colored piece of metal that juts out instead of hanging gracefully. This disruption draws attention to both the material and the artifice of the rest of sculpture, which is styled to look soft and pretty.

Installation view of Honor Freeman’s work; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Installation view of Honor Freeman’s work; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Described by the artist as a “ghost” or “memory of a past form,” Tupperware—Transforming a Chaotic Kitchen creates a sense of nostalgia for a domestic ideal of past eras. However, the knowledge that this is a reconstruction in porcelain rather than the authentic plastic containers reminds viewers that they are not seeing—or remembering—things exactly as they are. This frames the idealized version of the past as a false memory, a beautification of historical reality.

Gender and Opportunity

Both sculptures deal with the social status of women as artists and workers. By drawing parallels with a celebrated but male-dominated art movement, Eridanus reminds viewers that women artists face professional inequities. The sculpture references issues of gender, interpretation, and sexism that significantly impact the careers of female artists.

Freeman’s sculpture deals with the shifting status of women more broadly. Historically, selling Tupperware gave women new opportunities. The choice of this subject highlights the tension between nostalgia for the “better days” of the past and the less-than-ideal historical reality of many women’s lives. The elevation of domestic objects and “craft” techniques to the status of fine art may also celebrate the many economic and social advances women have made in recent history.

Visit NMWA to see Eridanus and Tupperware—Transforming a Chaotic Kitchen together in one third-floor gallery.

—Kait Gilioli is the summer 2016 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.