Lesson: Lynda Benglis: "Why have there been no great women artists?"

  • Subject Area: Art History, Media Literacy, English

Introduction: In this lesson, students will explore how gender and feminism intersect with visual art through a critical examination of select works from artist Lynda Benglis.  Students will discuss the concept of feminism and how it applies to both contemporary art in general and the work of Lynda Benglis. A close reading of Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why have there been no great women artists?,” will also provide students with a greater understanding of feminism through the historical framework of the 1960s and 1970s. 

Objectives:

  • Students will become familiar with the work of artist Lynda Benglis
  • Students will explore the concept of feminism
  • Students will understand gender and feminism as a component of Lynda Benglis’s work 
  • Students will understand the ways artists incorporate political beliefs into their artwork

Time: One class period (approximately 1 hour).

Suggested Procedures:

  • Look at Quartered Meteor and Sparkle Knot V simultaneously. Have students divide a sheet of paper in two and write words they associate with each object on different sides of the page. Share some of the words as a group.
  • Share the dates of these works. Why do you think Lynda Benglis might have created two very different pieces around the same time?    
  • Compare and contrast the two pieces. Did any of the words listed for each work overlap? Which words? Are any of the words listed in opposition to each other?
  • Ask students if they think the words they wrote have any relationship to gender–why or why not?

One element that is often discussed in conjunction with the work of Lynda Benglis is feminism. Benglis came to prominence at a time dominated by male artists and critics, and has produced work that directly addresses her perception of sexism in the art world.  Though Benglis takes care to never identify herself as a feminist artist, she is often included in the category of “feminist art” in art history textbooks, exhibitions, and critical texts.

Distribute the following quotes to students and ask students to think about these words in Benglis’s work. How do these quotes relate or not relate to Quartered Meteor and Sparkle Knot V? Do these quotes change how we think about Benglis and her work more broadly?

  • “Benglis took the regimen of “procedures and materials” from the generation of artists who invented it and, using their own rules, turned it against them.” 1
  • “As a friend of mind remarked at the time…’If only she’d been a guy, it would have been less intimidating’.” 2
  • “Her whole body of work is sensual, physical; her sculptures, heaps, formless masses, such as Quartered Meteor, 1969, are liquid and hard at the same time; sometimes high colored–like concoctions children enjoy making–but there is a dark, grimacing, obscure side…” 3

Facilitate a general conversation about students’ perceptions and definitions of feminism. Ask students to consider what “feminist art” might be and what they imagine it might look like.

  • Look at Lynda Benglis’s work Contraband. Benglis created Contraband by pouring large buckets of pigmented rubber latex on the floor, allowing the material to build texture and weight as it flowed, creating an organic shape that Benglis was unable to fully control. Benglis used 500 pounds of each color, meaning that the process of creating Contraband was physically taxing.
  • Observations? What does this remind you of, or make you think of, if anything?
  • Share details of Benglis’s process with students, including images of her creating Contraband. Ask students to consider why Benglis might have used this process. 
  • Have students watch a YouTube video of Benglis discussing Contraband

Benglis came to prominence at a time when it was difficult to be a female artist. The same year that Contraband was created, Linda Nochlin wrote an essay about the role of women in art. Nochlin is an art critic and scholar who studied and wrote about feminist art. As a response to what she perceived as the state of the art world, she wrote the essay “Why have there been no great women artists?”

  • Ask students what they think about Benglis’s comments about women and materials in her video interview.

Have students read Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why have there been no great women artists?” Discuss and reflect on the essay using the following questions as a guide:

  • What is Linda Nochlin’s argument in this essay?
  • What is “the woman problem,” as Nochlin refers to it?
  • What does Linda Nochlin mean when she says “great artist”? Do you agree with her definition?
  • Have students consider “Why have there been no great women artists?” in relation to Lynda Benglis. Questions you might ask students to consider are: 
  • Does this change the way we look at Lynda Benglis’s work?
  • Nochlin writes that “Women artists are more inward looking, more delicate and nuanced in their treatment of their medium, it may be asserted.” Does Lynda Benglis live up to this?
  • How do we think things may have changed or remained the same since this essay was written in 1971?

Have students write their own responses to the question “Why have there been no great women artists?” now that they have read the essay.

Extend the Lesson: In the 1970s, Benglis began exploring advertisements as a way to confront the underrepresentation of women in the art world. She created advertisements that satirized pin-up girls, Hollywood stars, and other stereotypical depictions of women. In November 1974, this work culminated with a controversial ad in Artforum magazine. In an advertisement promoting her upcoming show at Paula Cooper Gallery, Benglis posed naked, wearing only sunglasses and a latex dildo. Have students look at Lynda Benglis’ Artforum advertisement, and read the reactions to it (letters, articles, and more, found in the Lynda Benglis exhibition catalog). Discuss how the Artforum advertisement approaches the issue of gender and feminism differently or similarly to other works by Benglis that you have looked at. How might you approach an issue of political importance to you through creating public advertisement? Facilitate students in a discussion or interactive project responding to Benglis’ Artforum advertisement.

1. Dave Hickey, “A House Built in a Body: Lynda Benglis’s Early Work,” in Lynda Benglis, ed. Franck Gautherot, Caroline Hancock, and Seungduk Kim (France: Les presses du reel, 2009), 17.
2.Ibid.
3. Gautherot et al. 67

Lesson Plan: Lynda Benglis: "Why have there been no great women artists?"

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