Offensive Anatomy

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Detail L: Robert Morris, poster for exhibition at Castelli-Sonnabend, April 1974; Detail R: Lynda Benglis, advertisement in Artforum, November 1974; a poster for "Lynda Benglis / Robert Morris: 1973 - 1974," an exhibition at Susan Inglett Gallery

When sculptor Lynda Benglis published her scandal-worthy Artforum ad in 1974, the one where she held a double dildo up to her naked, oiled, and fit-as-a-biker-chick body, the din of criticism that followed came mainly from art world insiders. It was the insiders Benglis made the ad for, reacting against potently macho ads by artists like Robert Morris, who had appeared in the magazine to promote one of his exhibitions topless, buff and wrapped in chains. A few women, most notably Rosalind Krauss, resigned from the publication in the wake of Benglis’ stunt. Others jumped to the artist’s defense: Peter Plagens wrote in a letter that, those offended should cover “the offensive anatomy with a small Don Judd inset.” Plagens wasn’t saying no one had a right to object to a double-wide dildo, just that Artforum editors in particular had better acknowledge their double standard before skulking away, put-off by a one-time provocateur who’d made a clever jab.

Plagens’ jab was pretty clever itself—what would fit over a dildo better than a Donald Judd?—and I quoted it recently when reviewing the traveling Lynda Benglis’ retrospective currently at MOCA Los Angeles. I actually tried covering the offending anatomy with one of Judd’s “specific object” sculptures, a blue one from 1967 as shiny as Benglis’ oiled up body.  Of course, it fit perfectly.

My photoshopped Benglis-Judd image ended up on facebook, where it received praise from a few of today’s art insiders. Unfortunately, one of my mother’s friends saw the image too. She’s not an insider, and while she’s not a prude either, without context, the image struck her as bald-faced and, yes, offensive.

Lynda Benglis' 1974 advertisement, with the "offending anatomy covered by a small Donald Judd inset."

I felt badly. It hadn’t been meant for her. But I also wondered if offense would have been taken as easily at a different kind of blatancy.

An art critic for public radio with whom I often work reviewed the Benglis show as well. When he went to post a version of his review on the web, as he always does, his editors objected to one of the images he’d chosen: the Benglis ad sans Judd insert. Liberal art aficionados might be able to handle this, the editors said, but it was too risque for their more general audience. Only a few weeks before, the same critic had posted a far more explicit image on the same site, Courbet’s famous The Origin of World, of a reclining woman. All you can see is her stomach, thighs and what’s between.

Gustave Courbet, "The Origin of the World," 1866.

I know we now have decades’ worth of arguments about women as objects in art (“Do women have to be naked to get in to the Met Museum?” the Guerrilla Girls asked in 1989) and the unease that’s caused when the male gaze is subverted (“[T]he woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, …always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified,” wrote Laura Mulvey in 1975). However, I think it’s something more basic that makes the Benglis ad hard to take for those not in on the joke.  Certainly, Courbet’s  The Origin of the World would have caused uproar had it appeared to the public in 1866, when he first painted it. Instead, it stayed in private collections until a 1988 exhibition at the Met, and today it’s seen unarguably as a painting. Benglis’ ad is harder to classify. It’s part advert, part social critique, part photo project; with its “unnaturally” sculpted body, it riffs off the visual language of pornography; most overtly, it mismatches genitalia. It seems to me that that’s what we still can’t handle: provocation that collides categories.