Sculptor Lynda Benglis is — finally — having a moment.
Or, to put it more precisely, the Lake Charles-born, Newcomb College-trained artist is having another moment. At 73, more than three decades after her monumental bronze sculpture The Wave of the World debuted at the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans, Benglis is once again the toast of the contemporary art scene.
In addition to the recent installation of The Wave of the World in New Orleans City Park, after years of neglect while housed at Kenner's former sewage treatment plant, the woman responsible for what Art In America called "one of the funniest, funkiest and smartest bodies of work of the last 40 years" is currently the subject of a major exhibition at New York's Storm King Art Center, Lynda Benglis: Water Sources.
"It was like finding something so personal to me, as if it were a very significant piece of my past," Benglis, speaking from her studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, tells Gambit. "It could have been my mother or my father that I was rediscovering. It could have been one of my children. ... And that's what public art is about: making visible something that is very important to the artist."
Benglis is no stranger to making waves. In the 1970s, as she developed the series of cantilevered polyurethane foam "waves" she considers precursors to The Wave of the World, Benglis sparked contro-versy with an advertisement in the November 1974 issue of Artforum. The two-page spread, for which Benglis paid $3,000, featured the artist wearing only a pair of sunglasses, posing with a massive dildo.
Until recently The Wave of the World sat deter-iorating and nearly forgotten in a storage yard in Kenner, but thanks to Benglis and her supporters, it currently is on display in New Orleans City Park.
You can hear The Wave of the World before you can see it.
The 17.5 feet long, two-ton sculptured fountain curves into a massive metal claw as it rises from a pool of brackish water next to City Park's Big Lake. Currently it is partially obscured by thick stands of tall reeds, but the force of the water the fountain expels is nearly enough to drown out the noise of the traffic at the park's Esplanade Avenue entrance. With colors ranging from muddy brown to the phosphorescent green of oxidized bronze, The Wave has an elemental aspect, a meeting of earth and water that seems appropriate to its genesis. After all, south Louisiana is not known for large waves, except following hurricanes.
"Water was a friendly resource in my growing up, but also it was a scary element," Benglis says of her childhood in Lake Charles, where the first house her father built for her family sat on stilts above a rice paddy. Benglis often traveled to school in a motorboat. "Water was filled with images."
Benglis already had conceived The Wave of the World, but the project came to life when the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition selected her as one of the winners of a competition to design a sculpture for the fair, the theme of which was "The World of Rivers — Fresh Water as a Source of Life."
The moment was a landmark for the artist, who since has created many working fountains.
"The Wave of the World was the first fountain that I'd ever done, and for me it was a kind of magical thing," Benglis says. "A lot of image-making is in my head, so it's emotive, and I feel it. And the force of this work was really in my head and in my body. It was exactly as I'd imagined it would be. It came into being because of my strong feeling about it; it was kind of a whole-body feeling."
Purchased by local businessman Carl Eberts for $200,000 shortly before the World's Fair declared bankruptcy, The Wave of the World eventually made its way to the tiny principality of Monaco on the Mediterranean coastline of France, where it was installed in front of a casino. Eberts later had the fountain returned to Louisiana after he decided not to sell it to the Monaco casino owner. That's when the wave was placed in a former sewage plant-turned-storage facility while its final destination could be determined. Then-Kenner Mayor Aaron Broussard planned to display the fountain as part of a push for public art in Jefferson Parish. Later the sculpture was envisioned as the centerpiece of what became a failed riverboat casino/hotel project in Rivertown. After that, The Wave languished in storage, largely forgotten — except by its creator.
After Hurricane Katrina, Benglis wanted to know what had become of the sculpture and asked friends and colleagues in New Orleans to help find it. She then attempted to secure permission from the city of Kenner to restore the work.
Complicating matters were the sculpture's ownership and Benglis' rights as the artist, as well as the prohibitive cost of shipping, refurbishing and installing the piece. Kenner officials determined that Eberts donated The Wave of the World to Kenner Development Corp. in 1998, and that group subsequently donated the sculpture to the city.
"The city [of Kenner] had been in custody of it for 30 years with no paperwork saying that it belonged to anyone else," Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni says. "We had no idea of the celebrity, the fame, of the artist that did this sculpture. Here's a great piece of artwork that's just sitting in a surplus yard."
New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) curator William Fagaly, a friend of Benglis, arranged an introduction to local art collector Chris Alfieri, a partner at the law firm of Christovich & Kearney. Under Louisiana law, an artist has the right to stop the exhibition of her work if it would negatively affect her artistic reputation, says Alfieri, who has experience doing legal work for artists, collectors, organizations and institutions.
"[The sculpture] was in such terrible shape" after so many years in storage, Alfieri says, that "the position Lynda took was, 'We're not going to allow you to exhibit The Wave in this condition, but if you allow the artist, who just happens to be living, to restore it, then terrific.' ... What was really very lucky about this was the uniqueness, the specialness, of having the living legend artist available and desirous of doing her own restoration. That is something that is very rare."
The deal Benglis struck with the city of Kenner, Alfieri says, allowed the artist to make a mold of the sculpture — which became the basis for a new piece, Crescendo, now on display as part of Lynda Benglis: Water Sources. In return, she restored The Wave of the World, replacing a missing piece and shipping the sculpture to Modern Art Foundry in New York at her own expense.
The Helis Foundation, a Louisiana group established and funded by the William Helis family (of Helis Oil & Gas), underwrote the cost of installing The Wave, which the City of Kenner is loaning to City Park — as well as personnel, legal, insurance and storage expenses.
"The piece is so monumentally large and weighs so much and requires that there's a running water component, so it's not the usual public sculpture," the Helis Foundation's Jessie Haynes says. "This required so much infrastructure." Haynes declined to provide specific numbers, but Kenner officials previously estimated the cost of installation near Lake Pontchartrain at $250,000.
Nora Lawrence, associate curator of the Storm King Art Center, arranged Lynda Benglis: Water Sources along with the center's director and curator David R. Collens.
"They always seem like they're halfway between one movement and another," Lawrence says of Benglis' sculptures. "She's someone who's always been thinking about water, and about nature, as a source of life."
A formal dedication ceremony with Benglis in attendance is planned for October, but City Park is only the sculpture's temporary home. After a four-year loan agreement comes to an end, Yenni wants to install The Wave of the World permanently at Kenner's Laketown, site of an ambitious development proposal that would include stores, restaurants, residences and possibly a casino and hotel. Public art is one aspect of his vision for Kenner.
Whether the general public will respond to The Wave with the same enthusiasm as Yenni and New Orleans' fine arts community remains to be seen. On a recent Wednesday at City Park, walkers, runners and cyclists scarcely paused to glance at the fountain, though Big Chief David Peters-Montana of the Washitaw Nation Mardi Gras Indians, praised the "contemplative" setting.
Reactions thus far have been mixed.
"People are definitely intrigued by it," Haynes says. "Somebody did say, 'It's f—ing ugly' ... but the overall reaction thus far is awe and inspiration and a sense of wonder."
The rediscovery, restoration, and installation of The Wave of the World, at a moment of resurgent interest in Benglis and other artists who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, has the feeling of a homecoming to Alfieri. "She is a Louisiana treasure," he says. "She has achieved international acclaim and notoriety, but at the end of the day she's a Lake Charles girl. ... This is our piece. This is our artist."
For her part, Benglis' has simpler hopes for the public's first encounter with The Wave of the World in nearly three decades.
"I think they could come with a little picnic," she suggests, "and sit and watch it for a little while."