American, b. 1941
Zita, from the Sparkle Knot series,, 1972
Cotton bunting, plaster, acrylic paint and glitter over aluminum screen
87.6 x 97.8 x 34.3 cm (34 1/2 x 38 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches)
Mary B. Jackson Fund 2006.73
Part of the artist’s Sparkle Knot series from the early 1970s, Zita presents a rough bow-like shape adorned in glitter and bright acrylic paints. By incorporating materials and techniques more common in hobby-associated crafts, artist Lynda Benglis challenged the prevailing critical bias towards the raw materials and basic geometric forms employed by her male contemporaries.
At a showing of Zita and other Sparkle Knot sculptures at New York’s Clocktower Gallery in 1973, Benglis hung the works with strings of Christmas lights, further underscoring both their rough-hewn and ornamental qualities.(October 1, 2010 – January 9, 2011)
Edited ByWoolsey, Ann, ed.
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2008
TypeMonographs and Collections
About the work
During the 1960s and 1970s, Lynda Benglis experimented with unusual new materials to create surprising three-dimensional forms. For Zita, she lifted glitter and bright acrylic paint out of the realm of craft and used it in a fine-arts context. The effect of the brilliant and colorful materials on the surfaces of her twisted sculptures surprised contemporary art audiences. They were accustomed to the Minimal and Conceptual art of the time, characterized by toned-down color, geometric forms, orderly composition, and few traces of the artist’s personal expression.
Made to hang on the wall, Zita is constructed using cotton cloth, plaster, acrylic paint, and glitter over a metal screen that gives it a sturdy structure. The form of the work takes on the contours of the knotted fabric and seems to suggest the gestures of hands or legs or even the shapes of internal organs. Most of the material is compacted in the dense area of the knot, while two branches of material shoot out from this center. There are areas on the surface where a dark paint has been applied, and large swaths of iridescent gold, silver, pink, and green glitter are laid across the cloth. Looping and tying the material, Benglis created a bow-like form with a surprising tensile quality.
Zita was created in, and can be understood as part of, the cultural context of America in the 1970s, when growing awareness of personal, social, and political identities was spurred by the feminist and civil rights movements. This context is reflected in Benglis’s deliberate choices of materials, compositions, and titles. In the 70s, glitter had connotations of tackiness, the feminine, and non-serious art-making. The organic forms in Zita indicated Benglis’ overt interest in the sensuous human body in contrast to the aloof geometric qualities of Minimalist and Conceptualist work made by male artists of the time.
Benglis is concerned with the physical qualities and connotations of forms and materials and how these affect the viewer. What are the physical qualities of Zita that stand out most?
Zita is made from cotton bunting, plaster, acrylic paint, and glitter over a metal screen. What can you tell from the piece about how it was made? In other words, how does this piece actually reveal its process of making? How does Benglis’s choice of materials affect the meaning of the piece? Listen to artist Joan Wyand respond to Benglis’s choice in materials and process.
Of the criticism her work received, Benglis stated, “There will always be a Puritan strain in society that gets nervous if things are too pleasurable, too beautiful, or too open. That’s the most significant legacy of feminist art; it taught us not to be afraid to express these things.” Ask students to analyze this statement in the context of 1970s American society. How do they relate Benglis’s statement to the piece itself? Consider also the name of the series, Sparkle Knot, of which Zita is one sculpture. What does this name and Benglis’s statement contribute to your understanding of the work? Students can listen to curator Judith Tannenbaum place Benglis’s work into the context of her times here.
Look closely to see the lines that form the sculpture. How many pieces of material are used? Focus in on a line and the gesture, shape, or form it makes. Using plasticine or Model Magic, turn the line into a three-dimensional shape in space.
Using yarn, string, and ribbon of different thicknesses and colors, have students create a knotted piece to explore ways to make ties and knots and get a sense of working with lightweight materials to create a knotted composition. Then ask them to discuss how their materials affected what was possible in their creation. What challenges did they have? What surprised them about their choices of color, material, and other decisions they made during the making process? Have them look again at Benglis’s sculpture. What insights or questions do they now have about Zita or the artist’s process?
To fully observe and articulate the suggestive qualities of Benglis’s work, ask students to write a description of Zita for someone who cannot see the image. Each student can start by making a list of words to describe the materials, the form, and any associations or references that come to mind. Encourage students to consider word choice carefully, and to use particularly compelling words to describe this work’s unique qualities.
To get to know the kind of sculpture being made by Minimalist artists around the same time that Benglis made Zita, compare Zita to John McCracken’s Untitled (Grey Plank) from 1978. Make a list of words or phrases to describe McCracken’s wall piece. What differences and similarities do you notice?
Franck Gautherot, Caroline Hancock, and Seungduk Kim, eds. Lynda Benglis, published on the occasion of the exhibition Lynda Benglis. Dijon, France: Les presses du reel, 2009.
Hilarie M. Sheets. “A Life of Melting the Status Quo.” New York Times, February 10, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/13/arts/design/13benglis.html?_r=0