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.

Art Fix Friday: September 2, 2016

Last Sunday, more than 700 women artists gathered outside of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel in Los Angeles for a group photo. The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Artsy shared the story. The Art Newspaper called the event a “wake-up call that women artists still have a long way to go. It’s not a question of making history—it’s a question of fighting it.”

Artist Kim Schoenstadt began the project, Now Be Here, by emailing 200 of the city’s artists, who in turn forwarded the email to others. The gathering was, in part, inspired by Hauser Wirth & Schimmel’s current exhibition Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016.

Front-Page Femmes

Frances Morris, the head of Tate Modern, says the art world is “still a boys’ club.”

Hyperallergic examines Betty Tompkins’s “striking and unapologetic” works.

NO MAN’S LAND artist and Turner Prize nominee Helen Marten discusses how her assemblages defy easy categorization.

Hyperallergic discusses the “raw tenderness and explicit sexuality” in Catherine Opie’s intimate photographs.

Multimedia artist Wendy Red Star talks about contemporary Native American art, her artistic practice, and collaborating with her daughter.

As part of Simone Leigh’s The Waiting Room, the Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter collective unites against “institutionalized violence that continues to plague black communities.”

Juxtapoz shares Erika Lizée’s “ominous and mysterious” trompe-l’oeil installation.

Amber Cowan fuses fragments of vintage glass to create complex vessels and sculptures.

“Random items in Fluxus spirit exemplifies that everything is art” in Alison Knowles’s exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

The Art Newspaper and the Guardian explore Björk’s new exhibition.

In her series “Doubles,” Miranda Barnes explores the friendship between black twin girls.

Olek yarn-bombed a two-story house in Finland with pink crochet.

Costume designer Sandy Powell discusses working with Martin Scorsese, her favorite designs, and her early inspirations.

The New Yorker explores the life and work of piano prodigy Yuja Wang.

Ileana Cabra’s first solo album contains “folk-inspired ballads and infectious Latin jazz standards.”

New Marvel Comics covers show “a diverse field of heroes for the covers.”

Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, depicts a “country both blessed and doomed” during the global financial crisis of 2007 and 2008.

The New Yorker shares Bernadette Mayer’s poetry.

NPR shares an interview from October, 2015 with author Gloria Steinem.

Shows We Want to See

Her Crowd: New Art by Women from Our Neighbors’ Private Collections at the Bruce Museum showcases works by established and emerging women artists, including Yayoi Kusama, Kiki Smith, Betye Saar, Dana Schutz, and Tara Donovan.

Visitors wander through a “cardboard labyrinth” to view photographs of hundreds of visitors to the Perth Amboy home in Rachel Harrison’s installation at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

The Norwegian city of Bergen hosts seven exhibitions and events showcasing Lynda Benglis’s works throughout the year.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant 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.

Art Fix Friday: November 6, 2015

The Guardian discusses why the Baileys prize, the women’s prize for fiction writing, is still needed after 20 years. Research found that “women were responsible for buying two thirds of books sold in the U.S. and U.K.,” however reviews often cover more books written by men.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun won the “Best of the Best” award in a celebration marking the 20th anniversary of the Baileys women’s prize. The chairs and judges from previous years picked Adichie’s book as the best fiction work in a decade.

Front-Page Femmes

Artist Poppy Jackson sat naked on a London rooftop in a performance piece. Comments received from the media “prove why artwork presenting the female body from a woman’s perspective is so important.”

Russian philanthropist and art collector Dasha Zhukova gives one million dollars to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a new visiting artist program.

Cynthia Daignault traveled around the U.S. for six months, documenting the landscape every 25 miles. Her resulting work, Light Atlas, contains 360 paintings from her journey.

The Victoria & Albert Museum declined a trove of Margaret Thatcher’s clothes for their collection. The Telegraph says the museum is “ignoring the social, economic and political messages of clothes.”

Shannon Goff re-creates her grandfather’s 1979 Lincoln Continental Mark V—out of cardboard.

Australian artist and Holocaust survivor Judy Cassab died at the age of 95. Cassab was the first woman to win the Archibald portrait prize twice.

ArtInfo interviews French jewelry designer Victoire de Castellane after she won the Visionaries! Award by the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD).

Lost interviews with arts philanthropist Peggy Guggenheim are brought to light in a new biographical film.

Vulture shares their list of 100 women directors Hollywood should be hiring.

A new documentary focuses on the life of Australian Black Panther, artist, and activist Marlene Cummins.

Conductor and pianist Alondra de la Parra is the first female chief conductor and musical director of one of Australia’s three largest orchestras.

Mary Testa plays Barbara Bush in the chamber musical First Daughter Suite.

Shows We Want to See

In her first U.S. solo exhibition, video artist Rachel Rose explores the cosmos and attempts to “transport viewers into the void.”

Kara Walker’s latest exhibition, Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First, is on view in London. Hyperallergic reviews the extent to which Walker’s works “and the racism they illuminate, are steeped in America’s unique history.”

Featuring work by 45 artists, Modern Scottish Women shows that the interests of 19th-century woman artists were “broad and unflinching.”

Lynda Benglis: Water Sources at Storm King Art Center presents large outdoor sculptures and an installation of smaller works which “play at rituality and point to a chimera of ruin.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: June 5, 2015

In celebration of the 500th post on the Broad Strokes blog, the museum is launching a new weekly blog series that pulls together recent art news highlights and takes the pulse of women in the arts.

The June 2015 issue of ARTnews is dedicated to women in the art world.

In the central article, Maura Reilly measures the progress and inequities of women’s representation in museums, exhibitions, press, and the art market:

  • In the last ten years, there has been a 10.6% increase in women-led museums, although mostly in museums with smaller budgets.
  • The highest price paid for a work by a living woman artist is $7.1 million for a Yayoi Kusama painting, whereas the highest result for a living man is an editioned sculpture by Jeff Koons for $58.4 million.

Front-Page Femmes

In their annual list of the 100 most powerful women in the world, Forbes did not include any artists or art world professionals.

An analysis of six major literary awards shows that novels about women are less likely to win. Research found that zero women writing female-centric works have won the Pulitzer Prize in the last 15 years.

The Financial Times reports that only 22% of people working in the games industry are women, although women make up almost half of players. Recent mentoring initiatives are intended to help close this gap.

In the New Yorker, Anwen Crawford explores the need for female rock critics. Not placed on the same pedestal as male rock critics, women writers are more often viewed as groupies. Crawford describes, “Groupies have proved an enduring stereotype of women’s participation in rock: worshipful, gorgeous, and despised.”

Shows We Want to See

Lynda Benglis’s gargantuan Water Sources sculptures take over Storm King Art Center. Visit the Huffington Post for some amazing photography.

A solo exhibition of Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat prompts discussions of Islam and gender issues at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Japan Times writer Alice Gordenker covers two exhibitions in Japan featuring historical works by lesser-known Japanese women artists.

For more facts and figures about women in the art world, visit the Advocate section of the museum’s website. Check back for future installments of Art Fix Friday!

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Lynda Benglis & Maya Lin: Spookily Impressive Artists

Two artists born in October are not often discussed together. However, both created early-career work that elicited strong reactions from the American public and art world, later cementing their places in the history of art.

Born October 25, 1941, Lynda Benglis first gained renown for her poured-latex sculptures. The bright splashes of color departed from—but also engaged with—the restrained minimalist art popular with critics and art galleries.

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

Although she has exhibited primarily as a painter and sculptor, Benglis is well known for a controversial ad that ran in a 1974 issue of Artforum. The ad featured Benglis, naked except for a pair of sunglasses, holding a plastic dildo between her legs. The aggressive object and pose, and the overt, in-your-face sexuality of the ad, created a firestorm in the art world. Critics and artists either loved it or hated it; Artforum editors even left the magazine to protest its inclusion. Though the art world called the image everything from pornography to a centerfold, today the image can be found in art history books as a remarkable statement about feminism and gender in art. A sculpture by Benglis in NMWA’s collection exemplifies another phase of her work, in which metal appears to fold and curl like fabric.

Another October-born artist, Maya Lin, has by turns provoked controversy and praise.

Lin, born October 5, 1959, has designed major works such as the Civil Rights memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and the museum of African art in New York. Her Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial—a subtle, powerful memorial like no one had created before—is a major tourist destination in D.C. Its construction caused a furor of discussion among about public spaces, monuments, and memorials.

Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Lin’s design won a 1981 contest and was selected for the memorial. Instead of glorifying the war, her design for the memorial was envisioned as a testament to loss. What Lin described as a black wound in the grass, symbolizing the impact of war on the nation, was at first seen by some as unpatriotic, and stylistically unbecoming of an American monument. Despite the initial backlash, Lin’s memorial is praised today for its careful consideration of the grief of war, and for the quiet solemnity of the space. It has ushered in new modes of memorial architecture.

Lin’s recent work has addressed environmental issues, particularly through a multisite work called What is Missing that tracks extinctions due to habitat degradation and loss. Just two days after her birthday earlier this month, it was announced that she is the recipient of the $300,000 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, to be awarded November 12.

Maybe there’s something in the air in October—whether quietly or loudly, these two artists have wrestled their way into art’s history.

—Caitline Hoerr is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight/New Acquisition – Lynda Benglis

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Lynda Benglis, Eridanus, 1984. Bronze, zinc, copper, aluminum, wire, 58 x 48 x 27 in.

Among NMWA’s new acquisitions this year is a sculpture by the innovative Lynda Benglis (American, b. 1940). Often billed as a feminist artist, I see Benglis as media oriented, as she works in anything from metal to encaustic to painting to video.

Benglis, a Louisiana native, trained under artists like Ida Kohlmeyer at H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College (now part of Tulane University). After receiving her bachelor’s in 1964, she moved to New York to study painting and became part of a close clique of artists including Gordon Hart, Barnett Newman, Carl Andre, Jennifer Bartlett, Ron Gorchov, and Marilyn Lenkowsky. It was during this time that she began her experimentation with poured floor paintings, which bridge the media of painting and sculpture.

In the early 1970’s she began a collaborative relationship with sculptor Robert Morris that would lead to her most infamous work – the Artforum advertisements. With the intent of pushing back against the male-dominated art world, she bought a series of self-promoting full-page ads in the magazine, ending with a photo featuring Benglis wearing only sunglasses and a large dildo. Male and female critics alike were very vocal, branding it “exploitative” or dismissing it as “kinky cheesecake.” Fascinatingly, Robert Morris’ ads in the same magazine of himself clad in S&M attire generated only a fraction of the commentary Benglis did, proving the entire point of her exercise: that women were simply not allowed the artistic acceptance that men had. She also produced a number of video works along the same subject lines at this time.

Benglis had been producing wire mesh relief sculptures covered in glittery paint since 1972, but by the early 1980s they had evolved to the elegant forms that Eridanus (titled after a river in Greek mythology) exemplifies so well. She used either plated steel or detailed wire infrastructures coated with layers of nickel, zinc, copper, and chrome to create sculptures that amazingly resemble knotted cloth. While I do appreciate her earlier work, I find her metallic “ruffles” far more appealing. Her evolution as an artist and willingness to experiment are apparent in their painstaking construction, which evokes anything from blooming flowers to fancy dresses. She also creates forms that simultaneously resemble human torsos and sheets of metal that appear to have been scrunched in someone’s fist before being tossed onto the wall. I can’t decide whether they feel effortless or monumentally heavy. Benglis continues to work today, dividing her time between New York and New Mexico.

Come decide for yourself on our third floor galleries, where you can see Eridanus and other wonderful recent NMWA acquisitions!

About the author: Carolanne Bonanno is NMWA’s communications and publications intern.