Memory is as important to the work of Lynda Benglis as any of her artistic materials, including the globular polyurethane foam and wax for which she is perhaps best known. A pioneer of free-form sculpture who radically pushed the medium in the late ’60s, she fills her biomorphic abstract works with the textures, sounds and images of the past. The artist’s coming exhibition at Pace Gallery in Palo Alto, Calif., which will open on August 21, includes work from four decades of her career, ranging from the curving tubular “sparkle paper” sculptures she has produced since 2013 — brightly colored totems created from handmade paper draped around amorphous chicken-wire forms — to “Eat Meat,” a fleshy human-size blob of poured-polyurethane foam that Benglis first fashioned in 1969 and recast in aluminum in 2012. Each piece in the show is laced with memory. Recently, she recalled how her childhood trips from her hometown, Lake Charles, La., to the rocky Greek island of Kastellorizo, where her paternal grandparents once lived, informed her fascination with rugged textures, while she attributed her keen understanding of color, seen in works such as the hot-pink crystalline cast-polyurethane wall sculpture “Swinburne Figure I” (2009) and the shimmering multicolor paper-and-wire sculpture “Flag Twister” (2017), to watching birds as a girl with her grandfather in Mississippi.
Since the 1990s, Benglis has traveled between her main home in East Hampton, N.Y., and Santa Fe, N.M., where she fell in love with the natural landscape. Her studio, a cluster of small earth-toned adobe structures connected by a network of flagstone paths, which she has occupied since 1997, offers sweeping views of the high desert and the space to create dramatic large-scale works, such as her recent sculpture “Elephant: First Foot Forward” (2018), a ragged five-foot-wide knot of white bronze that resembles a torn tire. Seated in her studio amid a sea of wooden sawhorses, Benglis meandered between decades and movements during our interview. “My whole history is reflected in my work,” she explained, as we discussed her career, starting with her signature poured-latex floor pieces in the 1960s and ’70s, with which she redefined the then predominantly male world of sculpture, and touching on one of her most subversive works: her groundbreaking Artforum ad. During the heyday of Minimalism in 1974, Benglis placed a highly controversial ad in the magazine, after the editors there had refused to illustrate an interview with her using a nude self-portrait. The two-page advertisement, which shows Benglis naked but for a pair of cat-eye sunglasses and clutching a latex dildo toward her crotch, is now considered an important artwork in its own right and a comment on the sexist gender stereotyping of art and images shown in the media.
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Now, at 77, Benglis is more prolific than ever: After her show at Pace, she will open the exhibition “In the Realm of Senses” at the Museum of Cycladic Art in November, with 30 works selected by the art historian David Anfam, and next May, the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas will hold a major solo exhibition dedicated to her groundbreaking work in sculpture. On a late July morning, as she prepared to travel to Palo Alto, Benglis sat down to answer T’s Artist’s Questionnaire.
What is your day like? What’s your work schedule?
My day starts with looking at the New Mexico sky and the trees I plant in my studio’s garden. I go out on the porch to feed the birds and watch them play or fight over the seeds. After spending time with my miniature dachshund, Cleo, I make coffee.
How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?
My mind is always working with ideas but sometimes they pop and quickly disappear. I have to wait until the idea crystallizes again before I go back to working. Otherwise, I have no reason to work again. Last month, for example, I had a spark of an idea for which I am still in the waiting process. I am not interested in going backward, so I wait for new ideas to appear.
What’s the first piece of art you ever made?
When I was a child, I found some strings and sticks to make a mobile, which I had never seen in real life. Even back then, I was interested in making objects that move in space. My dad used to make kites out of newspaper and I thought about doing the same for a mobile. An urge to make things has always been evident. Art is about tricks of illusion and space.
What’s the worst studio you ever had?
I don’t consider any of them bad, because a studio is what you build with what is available. My beginning studio was heaven, an East Village basement with no heat. A former landlord had convinced me to move from an 11th Street unit to another one in a nine floor walk-up, with an offer of a basement space with an additional top floor, which nobody wanted. Having no proper heat led to my wax works, because I would need a heat source to melt the material. I found a secondhand plug-in heater and bought some Elmer’s glue and clamps. The Copts used encaustic painting recipes to paint caskets, which inspired me to make my own hot wax paint to achieve plasticity and transparency.
What’s the first work you ever sold? For how much?
It was a black-and-white painting sold to a collector from Washington state for around $400. Also, Sol LeWitt had introduced me to Dorothy and Herb Vogel, who collected my work early on. I had a collection of Sol’s drawings, until somebody I had let stay at my apartment for $75 stole them!
How do you know when you’re done?
How do you know when you land on a plane? It’s just obvious.
Have you assisted other artists before? If so, who?
No, but Ron Gorchov and I assisted each other and had important artistic exchange.
What music do you play when you’re making art?
I used to listen to John Mayall while making the poured sculptures. I grew up listening to Greek music with my grandmother, as well as Johnny Cash, which I still think about.
When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?
I wasn’t comfortable in the beginning. Carl Andre asked to visit my studio after a night at Max’s Kansas City. He came to my basement space and saw I had ideas; he told me I am a real artist. One of the classes I enjoyed the most at school was logic. People thought I could be a logician, as it seemed I could argue anything, anytime if I throw out ideas into the space through art.
Is there a meal you eat on repeat when you’re working?
Actually, I was thinking today how important milk is for me — I drink it every day although I know most people don’t.
What’s the weirdest object in your studio?
Not at my studio, but I have a wonderful African carved wood ram. Another important object was a mask my dad had brought from Chicago. Later, I sold it for $50 because I needed money to leave New Orleans. I remember the expression on his face when I told him I sold it, which was the same expression he made when I showed him images of my Artforum ad piece with a dildo in 1974.
How often do you talk to other artists?
I have many artist friends here in New Mexico.
What’s the last thing that made you cry?
If you have windows, what do they look out on?
My garden. I should add that I consider anywhere I create my studio.
What’s your worst habit?
If there is something I don’t like about myself, I’d try to change that — but one thing I could be accused of is that I don’t listen enough [laughs].
What are you reading?
A book of recipes called “Barefoot in Paris.” I like looking at cooking photos for entertainment. You don’t have to eat; you can just look at them!
What’s your favorite artwork (by someone else)?
“The Winged Victory of Samothrace” at the Louvre impresses me every time I see it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
“Lynda Benglis” is on view from August 21 through October 23, 2019, at Pace Gallery, 229 Hamilton Avenue, Palo Alto, Calif.