Stella Sevastopoulos speaks to Dr David Anfam about the current exhibition of works by Lynda Benglis, on show in Athens at the Museum of Cycladic Art’s Stathatos Mansion:
THE EXHIBITION ‘Lynda Benglis: In the Realm of the Senses’ at the Museum of Cycladic Art’s Stathatos Mansion in Athens (runs till March 15), heralds the first time that such a large collection of work by this pioneering artist of post-minimalism, so influenced by Greek culture, has been presented in Greece. The Greek-American artist (whose grandmother was Greek), was so proud of her roots, that in 1973, she used a childhood photo of herself dressed in an evzone costume, on the invitation for her show at the Clocktower gallery. A large reproduction of this photograph may be found on the 1st floor of the current exhibition. This photo certainly contrasts with another one, which she is infamous for, published in 1974, in which she poses for the ‘Artforum’ magazine naked, wearing only sunglasses and brandishing a giant dildo (this photo is not included in the current exhibition). The latter was Benglis’s provocative response to the chauvinistic, male-dominated art world of her times.
Benglis’s art is influenced by the philosophy of Heraclitus, and especially by the concept of constant flux, and that ‘everything flows’. Benglis explores this concept of flux, via different mediums. Whether she is working in metal, paint, poured latex, ceramics or paper, there is an energy, movement and sensuality embodied in her creations. From the glamour of gold, to the humbleness of paper, Benglis molds these materials into sensuous forms that connect both cultural and biological associations. ‘Art Scene Athens’ spoke to the curator of the show, Dr David Anfam (Senior Consulting Curator of Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum whose extended research of Abstract Expressionism has resulted in various publications and curatorial successes). I was lucky enough to speak to Dr Anfam just before the press conference, and what follows is our talk, where he explains some of the main works and characteristics of this spectacular exhibition, organized by the NEON organization, in collaboration with the Museum of Cycladic Art.
– Let’s talk about the Greek element in Benglis’s work
– There are lots of Greek elements. First of all, the concern with constant movement, flux, energy, which goes right back to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who said that there were four elements, earth, air, fire, water. In ancient Greek philosophy, the spirit becomes water, and that connects with Benglis’s fountains (included in the exhibition), they are all about energy bubbling up. Then there’s specific titles of works, such as ‘Knossos’, which refers to the famous Cretan site. Lynda Benglis came to Greece in 1952, and her grandmother took her to the Parthenon and the Acropolis. There, she saw the Caryatids, so the work ‘Knossos’ in the exhibition also connects with that. References to the torso, the figure, the column, the Caryatid, are intermixed in this work. In the same room you will also find the work ‘The Graces’, the three ancient Greek Graces that incarnate beauty, charm, charity.
– How about the gold which she uses so much, evident especially in the works upstairs?
– Well that goes way back to ancient Greece too. The jewelry, gold treasures and all that. But the gold works upstairs are also about drapery and pleats, and that again connects with ancient Greece.
– You have made interesting choices of works in each room of this wonderful building.
– It’s so lovely to work in this beautiful mansion. It’s got gold, ornate details, and other Greek elements which work well with Benglis’s art. I want this show to be a homage to Lynda, but also a homage to her homage to Greece, so this building was the perfect venue. Her Greek roots are very important. You tend to think of American artists as either very native born e.g. Jackson Pollock from Wyoming, or else a lot of them were Jewish, Diaspora of Eastern Europe, or Russia (Rothko), but Benglis is one of a very few artists whose roots go back to Greece. That’s unusual. It’s very interesting because she’s Greek, but she also has a place in India. And there’s a work here called ‘Gangtok’, this is a place in India, in the Himalayas.
– The concept of the ancient goddess features a lot in this show
– The three Graces that feature in this show, are the epitome of female goddesses. But upstairs we have a different type of goddess, which is a bronze work called ‘Vessel’. It’s a vessel but it’s also a kind of womb-like figure. To me it’s a bit like the paleolithic Venus of Willendorf, or ancient fertility goddesses. I have also included in this show some ancient Greek works from the Cycladic Museum’s collection, in order to create a dialogue with Benglis’s works. One of them is an early 4th century sculpture of Hecate, the female goddess of the underworld.
– There are also a lot of works that look like knots.
– Yes, and associations can be made with the ancient Gordian knot. The knots Benglis creates are all about energy.
– How did you come to get interested in her work?
– I got interested in her work from the first time I saw it, when I was 22, the first time I went to New York, in 1977. I went to the Whitney Museum and was studying abstract expressionism, and saw one of her ‘Contraband’ works there.
– If you had to choose one word to describe her work, what would it be?
– It’s all about ‘sensuality’. The title of the exhibition is an acknowledgement of the Japanese film made in 1976, called ‘The Realm of the Senses’. It’s a very erotic film, and I thought it would be the perfect title. It’s about sex and the erotic. But there’s a musicality to her work also. I see these rooms in the show as being different kinds of music: Adagio, Largamente, Allegro, Allegro Molto, Andante etc. I feel that every room in this exhibition has a different musical title. And then I found an interview with Benglis, published in 2000, where she had said that she thinks in terms of music. And so it all made sense.