A stark white room welcomes viewers into an incredibly airy and illuminated space housing the sole three pieces of the Mitchell, Benglis and Wilke exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA): the first — an abstract painting evocative of a Van Gogh, the second—a wall installation of nine black flowery sculptures protruding from the wall and the third — a large oil spill-like sculpture lying on the ground threatening to ooze right onto unsuspecting passersby’s shoes.
Visiting the exhibition is like walking in on three different artists discussing what they think art should be. All three approach the subject with an unapolagetically strong sense of rebellion, fierce independence and a desire to provoke. Joan Mitchell, the great predecessor who influenced both Benglis’s and Wilke’s work, was one of the few women to be part of the second generation of American Abstract Expressionists, Mitchell quickly rose to become one of the most prominent and respected artists in New York City during the ’50s.
Mitchell’s Sunflower VI, featured in this exhibition, seems to set the precedent for the other three pieces in the exhibition. Although painted in 1969, the same year that Benglis created Bounce, Mitchell’s piece relies more on traditional abstract painting techniques. It feels like an unexpected celebration of death; with bright, bold paint strokes of rich golds and purples, there is a sense of joy in the decay of a flower so closely associated with sunshine. Mitchell additionally masters the power of negative space to evoke a sense of expansiveness, not only in this painting but also in the majority of her work. White spaces draw the eye from around the canvas to explore every stroke of heavily applied paint. Sunflower VI may be the most interesting and thought provoking piece in the room.
More unexpected, however, is Lynda Benglis’s sweeping sculpture Bounce. Benglis’s career, as expansive as Mitchell’s, was more cluttered with controversy and critical dichotomy. Taking influence from Mitchell, Benglis opposed the minimalist trends dominated by the male artists of the 60s and used materials like poured latex and foam, cinched metal and dripped wax in unorthodox ways to create provocative pieces that demand a viewer’s attention. With the appearance of a large spill of melted Crayola crayons left in the sun, Benglis’s Bounce exemplifies a core era in her career. By pouring different colored latexes directly onto the floor and leaving themit to congeal, Benglis creates very playful organic forms that celebrate the human body. Both with her eccentric techniques and provocative ideas regarding feminism, Benglis is a conversation starter, provoking both equal praise and critique.
Completing the trinity of abstract liberalism in the room is Hannah Wilke’s Ponder-r-rosa 1: a construction of latex sheets folded together into a diamond of nine black flower-like sculptures attached to the wall. Wilke also followed in the footsteps of Mitchell and Benglis by working in bold abstractions. Created in 1974, Ponder-r-rosa plays into Wilke’s greater motifs of flowers and vaginal imagery, but in a much more subdued way than other pieces of the artist, such as S.O.S. Startification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastification which features miniature vaginas stuck onto her nude self. Wilke’s fiercely feminist views and graphically abrasive work do not quite come through in Ponder-r-rosa, nonetheless it is the work of a truly innovative and original artist.
One could argue that a greater repertoire of these three women’s work would give a fuller depiction of their art, but by juxtaposing them in an intimate setting one can see the effect they had on each other as artists. These artists all created something very human, very physical and very brave.
The exhibition runs until Oct. 26. Lynda Benglis will be visiting campus as part of the Annual Plonsker Family Lecture in Contemporary Art on Oct. 25 at 3 p.m. in the Lawrence Auditorium. WALLS, WCMA’s semester-long art loan program, will be loaning one of Joan Mitchell’s pieces, Composition, on Sept. 14.