I’ve never seen Lynda Benglis’s work look more relevant than scattered around an opulent Neo-Classical mansion in the shadow of the Acropolis. The Stathatos Mansion is a slave to taste and style, determinedly emulating the great villas of the past, and Benglis’s sculpture is its total opposite. It’s bold, it’s bombastic, even vulgar at times, and unlike Neo-Classicism, never conventional, not even for a second. Benglis has challenged every tradition – sculptural, political, historical – throughout her long career, and this brilliant and concise retrospective will cement her position as one of the most radical and influential artists of the last fifty years. Curated by David Anfam, the Clyfford Still expert and organiser of the Royal Academy’s major Abstract Expressionism exhibition in 2016, this is a physical show that focuses on Benglis’s energy and sensuality, as well as grounding her work in the importance of her Greek heritage.
Benglis shot to fame in New York during the late 1960s, when she began making poured wax and latex pieces in direct confrontation with Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. While Minimalism was cold, ordered and industrially made, Benglis’s work was spontaneous, colourful and messy, and was heralded alongside Eva Hesse and Robert Morris as a new visual language dubbed “Post-Minimalism”. In works like ‘Baby Contraband’ (1969) Benglis took the example of Pollock’s poured and dripped painting technique, and literally poured paint onto the gallery floor in harsh shades of fluorescent pigment, challenging conventional standards of taste. Her sculptures fall from the wall and rise from the ground, using material as varied as paper, glitter and clay - sometimes even in the same piece - in a cacophony of contradiction.
The exhibition features work from all stages of her career, and is largely arranged thematically, focusing on subjects such as the colour gold, the use of paper and her response to the Classical female body. This thematic appraisal means there is no late work slump, and shows an artist that has continued to experiment and renew her practice into her 70s. Recent works resemble small piles of molten lava, trickling with water―a contradiction of dynamism and stillness, and perhaps the ultimate riposte to a tasteful water feature. In the upper rooms of the exhibition her work is contrasted with individual pieces of Classical sculpture chosen from the Cycladic collection, creating a visual dialogue with the past.
At the centre of the show is a photo of Benglis wearing the traditional Greek military evzone costume; taken when the artist was 12. Despite looking like a girl’s dress to a non-Greek audience, the evzone is a male costume, a symbol of military pride and masculinity, similar to the Scottish kilt. The artist used this image for an exhibition invitation card in the 1970s, a statement not only about her Greek-ness, but also as a statement about herself – even as a little girl she was not going to play by the rules. Benglis would go on to create even more challenging photographic works, but it’s a blessing to not find them on display here, allowing her revolutionary sculpture to stand centre stage. In the capital of Classicism her work rings like a death knell to the past, and shows that anything is possible and everything worth challenging. It’s perhaps a shame then that the curator referred to Benglis in his press speech as, ‘perhaps one of the greatest living female artists’. This Freudian slip betrays how women are still constrained by their gender and demonstrates exactly what an artist like Benglis has been striving against her whole life.