Lynda Benglis’s “Centerfold”
By Abigail Jones
A woman stares at you from behind white-rimmed, cat’s eye sunglasses, posing with this body — this glistening, tanned, tight body — that won’t let you look away. The light catches her chest. Breasts the size of baby apples cover her ribs, which protrude with the kind of definition that models starve themselves for. Her mouth hangs open, pouting, and her back is arched like a young girl who just learned how to use what she was given to get what she wants. Yet this woman has a kind of masculinity: hand on hip, muscular thighs spread, her short brown hair gelled. There between her legs, held firmly in her right hand, a veined, double-headed dildo emerges from a patch of trimmed pubic hair, one end extending outward, the other invisible — submerged.
She is Lynda Benglis, the post-minimalist artist who stunned the New York art world by posing nude in an advertisement in the November 1974 issue of Artforum. Originally, Benglis hoped the ad, which she titled “Centerfold,” would accompany an article on her work by Robert Pincus-Witten, then a critic for the magazine. WhenArtforum’s editor, John Coplans, censored the image, she purchased the ad space herself. In the infamous photo, Benglis, then 32 years old, is both sexual and asexual, feminine and masculine, artist and subject — and perhaps porn star. The result? A cultural battle over artistic value, authenticity, and morality.
Feminists applauded the advertisement, embracing its imagery as a necessary statement confronting gender and power in the art world. Yet some readers cancelled their subscriptions. Notably, five of the magazine’s editors printed a letter in the next issue, calling the ad “an object of extreme vulgarity.” Editor Annette Michelson said it revealed how “the magazine itself is the brothel within which things are for sale,” and editor Rosalind Krauss claimed it “was tantamount to saying that we were all hookers together.” (Soon after, Michelson and Krauss left Artforum and foundedOctober, a traditional art quarterly.)
Of course Benglis offended people; that was the point. She aimed to challenge conventional sexual portrayals of women, as well as gender differences, giving women more power — a power typically associated with men. The ad satirizedPlayboy’s centerfold, assaulting male fantasies of female sexuality with an image that was at once shocking, disturbing, and irresistible. “Centerfold” wasn’t the first time Benglis confronted these issues. Her early work — poured latex and polyurethane creations that oozed into coagulated sculptures; gorgeously complex and overly wrought knots that burst from the wall like orgasms — emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, an era marked by the sexual revolution and the women’s movement. “Centerfold” surfaced in 1974, just three years after Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” was published in ArtNews, offering a gender-based argument of male domination in the art world.
The ad also challenged the provocative poster that Benglis’s contemporary Robert Morris created that very same year. Photographed from the waist up, Morris was naked except for a military helmet and aviator sunglasses, his arms and neck shackled by thick chains. In “Centerfold,” Benglis harnessed Morris’s male sexuality. Her ad was a direct and brazen statement: If Morris can do it, I can too.
To a certain extent, Benglis ran “Centerfold” because Artforum wouldn’t publish it; for her, refusing to bow to censorship reinforced the significance of her work, regardless of its implications. She also did it as a form of advertisement. Decades before we accepted the daily battery of blogs, tweets, Facebook updates, and YouTube videos, Benglis understood how to draw attention to herself by using her body and her sexuality as both art and promotional props. Some criticized Benglis for the shameless self-promotion, but there was something inherently brilliant in this shamelessness. Benglis became an ad for her art. And that ad became art.
Benglis was aware of the impact of this transformation. As she explained in a 1975 article in New York magazine, “The ad, for me, signaled the end of an era. . . We’re actually beginning the twentieth century now.” Or perhaps the twenty-first.