“They’ll remember you for this.” That was Lynda Benglis’ mom, reacting to her daughter’s ad in the November 1974 issue of Artforum. Benglis spent $3000 to buy a two-page spread for her Paula Cooper gallery show. The left side had the artist’s and gallery’s name, plain white text on black. The right side had a photograph of the artist nude and oiled up, posing with a Boogie Nights-size dildo. Actually, it was a two-headed dildo intended for lesbians or the most imaginative of straight and gay male couples. In the 37 years since, the Benglis ad has become a milestone of feminist art history. In a way, Benglis’ mother was right. Though Lynda Benglis is “one of the most innovative living sculptors in the United States”(John Baldessari’s words), and that assessment is amply confirmed in the long-travelling Benglis show that has just touched down at MOCA Grand Avenue, no single work has gotten as much critical attention, laudatory or seething, as the Artforum spread.
A small 2009 show at the Susan Inglett gallery explored the often-surprising cultural background of the ad. It demonstrated that the 1970s art world was shockable in ways it’s not now. Many feminists hated the ad. Others faulted Benglis’ shameless self-promotion (no matter that the S.S. Warhol had sailed.) Maybe the most surprising thing was that no conservative politician tried to get mileage out of the controversy. Apparently, politicians didn’t know about contemporary art before the Drudge Report.
The ad had its origin in a series of transgressive mailings and posters that Benglis and friend Robert Morris were doing in the early 1970s. Morris did an S&M beefcake number (right) for his April 1974 show at Castelli-Sonnabend. Benglis wanted to top that. Though her ad ran as planned, five Artforum associate editors—Lawrence Alloway, Max Kozloff, Rosalind Krauss, Joseph Masheck, and Annette Michelson—were so appalled that they published a letter to Artforum editor John Coplans, calling it “an object of extreme vulgarity… brutalizing ourselves and, we think, our readers.” Krauss and Michelson resigned over the ad. Small world: Krauss was living with Morris.
Many artists and critics responded in letters. Peter Plagens, another Artforum editor, proposed that the offended editors might cover “the offensive anatomy with a small Don Judd inset.” Elizabeth Murray was “astonished that intelligent critics… could not get past their ‘taste’ enough to realize that they are blocking… freedom.” Vito Acconci, Jennifer Bartlett, and others co-signed a telegram praising Benglis for “bypassing editorial censorship.”
Arlene Raven and Beth Iskin faulted “inescapable self-promotion and self-prostitution.” Artforum’s John Coplans (previously Pasadena Museum curator) told the New York Times: “What it turns out to be in practice, is that the California intellectuals say the advertisement is a woman expressing herself. In New York, the intellectuals are more Victorian.”
School librarians indignantly cancelled Artforum subscriptions. An irate citizen (male) knocked over a Benglis sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Painter and art historian Marin Ries praised the artist’s “mammary glands… and her gluteai maxima” but complained that “her cock is too big.” Someone from Berkeley sent in a creepy, serial-killer chuckle (“He, ha, ha, ha, ha. Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho…”)
Perhaps most amusing was Larry Bell’s missive:
Dear Mr. Artforum,
Many thanks for finally printing something outside of your normal drivel … if this is a new policy of the publication please consider this letter a request for subscription, if not forget it. — Larry Bell; artist; Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico
Benglis cast five lead versions of the dildo she’d posed with, one for each of the complaining Artforum editors (a cast is in the MOCA show). The original’s mirrored penises were at at a slight angle, to allow for human anatomy. Benglis bent that into an emoticon, calling her sculpture Smile.