Lynda Benglis at Franklin Parrasch Gallery

Artist: Lynda Benglis, Title: Metal Force, 1993 - click for larger imageLynda Benglis, Metal Force (1993), ceramic, 24″ x 21-3/4″ x 18″; courtesy Franklin Parrasch Gallery

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Don’t fret if you didn’t make it to the 35-year survey of Lynda Benglis’ sculpture at Cheim & Read in March. Notwithstanding the huzzahs it generated, the exhibition wasn’t much to look at–at least for those of us who prefer the vitality of art over the inertia of museum pieces.

It did have sociological value, offering evidence of the aesthetic impoverishment an artist undergoes in order to accommodate the demands of the prevailing orthodoxy. The New York School has been a continuing influence on Ms. Benglis’ work: Whether pouring polyurethane foam on the floor, twisting aluminum mesh into knots or depositing a massive lump of lead in the corner of the gallery, she seeks a “natural extension of [Jackson] Pollock’s ideas.”

Yet Ms. Benglis isn’t an Abstract Expressionist. She’s a post-Minimalist, an artist who follows in the wake of one of the most destructive currents in 20th-century art. Minimalism jettisoned from art its capacity to embody metaphor, insisting instead on the inflexibility of brute physical fact. Anyone working in the tradition can only struggle to get out from under its oppressive weight.

Ms. Benglis, then, is a casualty of Minimalism. However much the palette is juiced, the decorative celebrated or the scatological tweaked, she can’t escape its deadening embrace–with the exception, that is, of her ceramic sculptures, six of which are on display at the Franklin Parrasch Gallery.

Ms. Benglis’ efforts in ceramic are absent of the self-consciousness that comes with being a follower: “Extension” isn’t the concern here; vitality is. Their improvisational character reiterates the artist’s debt to Abstract Expressionism even as she sends up its macho verities. Reveling in the physicality of clay, Ms. Benglis squishes it between her fingers, gives it a punch or two and splatters the lot with goopy overlays of color.

The resulting pieces are messy and muscular, drunk with delight. They invite a variety of associations–this one could be an homage to the Elgin Marbles, that one a riff on a Warner Brothers cartoon, the other a transcription of a Chinese landscape painting. All the while, material is celebrated and–contrary to the Minimalist ethos–transformed. It’s funny how a particular medium can bring out the best in an artist; it can be thrilling, too. This is where Mr. Benglis stakes her claim to history.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 16, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.

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