Put-ons and take-offs : Lynda Benglis, feminism and representations of the body, 1967-1977
The first decade of Lynda Benglis’ career coincided with the burgeoning women’s movement, during which time women’s representations of the body emerged as powerful feminist statements of sexual and artistic liberation. As a young artist working with abstract, erotic forms, Benglis was poised both to participate in and to take advantage of this growing genre. Yet, from the beginning of her career, the artist cultivated an ambivalent relationship to feminist art and politics. The following comment she made in a 1979 interview sums up her position: “I don’t wish to separate myself from [feminism], I don’t wish necessarily to be a part of it, but I am a part of it whether I want it or not.” Her statement suggests that Benglis maintained a reluctant dialogue with feminism; but it was a dialogue nonetheless, and one she sustained both through published statements and through her artwork. vii Historical accounts of seventies feminism almost exclusively emphasize Benglis’ notorious 1974 Artforum advertisement. The ad was an important gesture on the artist’s part, but it has overshadowed serious consideration of both the artist’s three-dimensional work and her videos. Consequently, I focus on different moments in Benglis’ early career, using visual and contextual analyses to define her contributions to the period. While Benglis is the primary focus of my study, I also use the artist to reconsider the significance of the erotic for seventies feminist art and politics more generally. While sexuality has always featured prominently in accounts of the period, examination of how exactly women both approached and expressed the topic has not been developed much beyond the conclusion of essentialism. Some of the issues I address in this context include the feminist promotion of masturbation, the theory of a female sensibility and the feminist reclamation of craft processes. All of these issues shaped the production and reception of feminist erotica, but they were neither straightforward nor consistent in their significance. Benglis variously engaged with these issues, developing her own ironic and erotic “put-ons” and “take-offs” as she both embraced feminist discourse and fashioned critical, artistic responses to it.