Lynda Benglis: NSFW 40 Years After Artforum

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Lynda Benglis. Photo: Scott Morgan/? Patrick McMullan

Forty years ago this month, Lynda Benglis published what is certainly the most famous advertisement in Artforum history. Here, the artist speaks with Bard’s Tom Eccles about the life of that confrontational image.

It's now exactly 40 years since you published the famous image of yourself photographed with the double dildo. It caused a storm among readers of Artforum and its editors and is perhaps one of the most important images of its time, if not the second half of the century. What were you thinking at the time? The work (it's been called an "advertisement," but it is actually an artwork) was situated within the context of Artforum magazine, which was running an article on your work by Robert Pincus written in that month's issue. Prior to this (in April 1974), you had just used, as an exhibition announcement for a show at Paula Cooper Gallery, an Annie Liebovitz photograph of yourself in Betty Grable pose wearing jeans dropped to your ankles. You've called the Artforum image a "centerfold.” Was it directed explicitly at the use of women's bodies in magazines?
I realized the old-fashioned pinup that I did was not clear, as I overheard a woman coming into Paula Cooper's gallery saying, "Who did that to her?" So I wanted an image that "looked back at you" ... !

It certainly does.
I never called that image a “centerfold.” I did want a centerfold, as it was my intention to do it basically folded out from the center. However, I then learned that Pincus-Witten was doing an article on my work and the editor was planning to place a metallized knot on the cover. Then it became more complicated.

Obviously much critical discussion subsequently has focused on the male "gaze.” Was that a primary concern?
There was no one reason that I made the image. It was a study of the objectification of the self, myself in relation to the subject of the pinup. And when I did get it right I felt that image as one. The times were right, and it was a study for that time.

Why was the context of Artforum important to you at the time? It has been argued that the magazine format, and Artforum in particular, is part of the work, that it is a communicative act — a performance, if you like — within that context. If so, what were you saying about Artforum or the art system at large?
Was I aiming to say something about the magazine? I don't think so, as it was, after all, an artist's forum, wasn't it?!

Just a couple of years before, Germaine Greer had published The Female Eunuch. I always thought the image would have made the perfect cover. What were you reading at the time?
With regards to reading art criticism I was more interested — and still am — in meeting people directly to discuss ideas.

The work proved incendiary at Artforum both among editors and readers. Did you expect that reaction?
I felt I had set a trap for them. They were out of another century.

Ingrid Sischy later changed the format, saying that it was because of this issue. I was glad to hear that she was in agreement.

How did you respond to criticism from editors including Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson that the work was an "object of extreme vulgarity" and a "shabby mockery" of the women's liberation movement?
I did not care one way or the other; perhaps I thought it was funny that the reaction was so strong.

How did you react to Krauss and others leaving Artforum to establish October, a publication that rejected both advertisements and glossy imagery?
It was good for the magazine.