Objects Of Affection

When Robert Morris, one of the original honchos of minimal sculpture, appeared on a 1974 exhibition poster greasily bare chested, draped with a chain and wearing a Wehrmacht helmet, Lynda Benglis picked up the gauntlet. She placed a two-page ad in Artforum displaying herself nude, posing with a dildo. The idea, she said later, was to skewer everything from macho art, like Morris's, to the densely theoretical tone of the magazine that championed it. Editors fumed, angry letters rolled in, readers clucked, and Benglis won the battle of provocative publicity. But back in the studio and out in the gallery, where such "truth or dare" games don't carry much weight, did her art meet the challenge? And, since she began with such a strong reaction against sculpture with industrial right angles, could her art come up with an alternative for the long run? The answers, which can be seen in a traveling retrospective show, are mostly yes. This week the exhibition opens at the Contemporary Art Center in New Orleans, Benglis's hometown (it was organized by Atlanta's High Museum of Art and travels next to San Jose, Calif.).

Benglis left the H. Sophie Newcomb College for Women and headed for the New York art world in 1964, when minimalism was gathering steam and the women's movement was just over the horizon. By the time she got her own studio in Soho, the big issue in contemporary art was how to transform the forcefulness of minimalism into something a little more personal, without giving up the rigor. For Benglis (and many women artists) that meant adding autobiography to the mix-in Benglis's case, glitter and color from her Greek-Louisiana background-while trying to maintain the vanguard heft of big abstract sculpture. It was a tall order: too much mainstream bombast and the work would look like tinted Carl Andre, too much feminine allusion and you'd have giant macaroni jewelry.

Benglis relied on her nearly unerring sense of bayou beauty and let the process of making the art show through. The work looked almost as if it had.made itself. Her breakthrough pieces, beginning in 1970, involved constructing elaborate armatures with metal tubing, chicken wire and plastic sheeting, then coating them with polyurethane foam. After several days of hardening, the underpinnings were removed so the sculpture could cantilever breathtakingly out into the room, like a melting mastodon skull. In one bold step, Benglis had taken the no-frills ethic of minimalism, applied it to process and come up with a sculptural style that was, if a little theatrical, at once melodic and monumental, tender and tough.

If everything she touched turned to esthetic gold (gold leafing is one of her favorite devices), this would be a spectacular show. Yet Benglis's 25-year career is marked with wrong turns: "If this, then why not this?" she seems to be constantly asking. The eerily joyous color of her mid-1960s beeswax hybrids of sculpture and painting turns glibly garish in the subsequent "sparkle knots" like "Valencia I" (1973). Once in a while, she even gets the Rauschenberg itch, travels to India and cranks out cloth banners, a kind of Benglisized native craft.

But Benglis's buoyant energy and technical inventiveness can also turn bad into beautiful. The militantly girlish and unsuccessful "Lagniappes" of the late 1970s, for instance, lead into elegant, buttery gold pleated reliefs a couple of years later. Since then, Benglis has been on a roll, making sculpture (like the seashellsymmetrical "Eclat" of 1990) that removes the pejorativeness from the word pretty. These recent pieces are made with bowed and accordioned fine steel mesh that is sprayed repeatedly with molten metal. They're then polished to a chrome-bumper shine punctuated with pits in the deeper recesses. The work weaves dreamily between a femininity that's almost camp and a brittleness that's almost melancholy.

With her sensuous, hands-on approach, Benglis can certainly be credited with a major role in rescuing contemporary art from the overdose of intellect it suffered in the 1960s. As Susan Krane puts it in her catalog introduction, "Benglis clearly believed in the validity of, and the need for, touch and authorship." But that's a little too dry and historical a take on an artist still so young, especially in spirit. At a prolific 49, Benglis will be around a lot longer and, with her, sculpture is likely to have a cheerfully feminist spring in its step for some time to come.