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Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective

The Museum of Modern Art, Queens
Through September 27

Lee Bontecou,
Lee Bontecou, "Untitled" (1980-1998), welded steel, porcelain, wire mesh, canvas, and wire. Photo by Will Brown. Courtesy of Knoedler & Company, New York.

In a soot drawing from 1958, executed with an oxyacetylene torch, brightly highlighted, tendon-like shapes rise up to a gaping, muscle-ringed hole from which stares a blank eyeball. This dilated and menacing orifice, bulging in a dark, swarming atmosphere, might be read as a vagina, an anus, or even a mouth, but what is important is that it is an image—magnified—of a basic, dynamic structure, ambiguous between the organic and the mechanical. Lee Bontecou’s interest in such dynamic structures is perhaps even more evident in another masterful soot drawing from 1958. Here, separate, minutely rendered parts fit together into long, irregular, warping patterns from which her signature holes seems to be torn. The drawing is simultaneously biological and machinic, its disparate and idiosyncratic parts held together by the strong, tensile pressure that runs through them.

Born in 1931 in Providence, Rhode Island, and raised in Westchester County, New York, the career of Lee Bontecou has been unusual by any measure. She studied painting and sculpture at the legendary Art Students League in New York, and later attended the Summer program at the Skowhegan School in Maine. Having spent a crucial year in Rome on a Fulbright Scholarship, Bontecou received her first solo exhibition in New York at the G Gallery in 1959, and between 1960 and 1971 she mounted four major solo shows at the Leo Castelli Gallery, had numerous exhibits at galleries and museums in Europe, and completed a commission for Phillip Johnson’s New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. After a mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Bontecou largely withdrew from the art world, and over the subsequent thirty-plus years she has had only a handful of exhibitions. This has created a strange effect. Despite having been an art star of the 1960s and among the most important women artists of the post-war generation, her work has been less well-understood and influential than that of artists of similar stature, like Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse. Curated by Elizabeth A.T. Smith of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in cooperation with Ann Philbin of the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective, goes a long way towards filling this historical gap.

As the drawings make clear, Bontecou’s sources include both French Surrealism and Italian Futurism: one thinks of the playful yet demonic worlds fashioned by André Masson and Roberto Matta, of the swiftly transfiguring motion studies of Giacomo Balla. While the earlier three-dimensional pieces in the exhibit are animal sculptures elegantly constructed from separate plates, either Terracotta or bronze, Bontecou’s signature work really begins with the reliefs in welded steel, canvas, and wire. These early works are among her most playful and idiosyncratic, and suggest the influence of Joseph Cornell, whom she knew and admired. In a piece from 1958, for instance, two standing box-like shapes made from pieces of blackened canvas mounted on a welded steel frame are connected by mesh funnels, making the whole construction resemble an archaic camera or even a camera obscura. Bontecou’s work often alludes to technology, vision, and the nature of illusion, and here, as well as in a similar sculpture from the same year, those connections are explicit. In another piece, a small box made from blackened, crudely stitched together canvas rests atop thin steel legs, a wide, puckered hole gaping in one side. In other works, the box structure is mounted directly on the wall. The pieces of canvas are subtly shaded with soot and the yawning, ovoid hole opens into a plush, deep black interior. Increasingly through 1959, Bontecou uses the patterns created by the pieces of stitched together fabric, the wire used for suturing them together crudely sticking out, as well as the tonal variations created by the soot, to fashion tense, awkward, spiraling patterns around the central hole. In some pieces, the effect is enhanced and complicated by using the welded steel structure to push the surface out into a relief topography. While the eye is pulled into the interior blackness of the hole, the viewer gets the sense of there being a fraught interior pressure pushing outwards.

The contrast between Bontecou’s drawings and sculptures of the late 1950s is instructive. In the large drawings, there is a subtle push and pull between the grainy immediacy of the soot-stained surface and the elegance of the rendered forms. In the sculptures, on the other hand, the tension is between the rickety and, at moments brutal, character of the materials and the scary, luxuriant absoluteness of the interiors. Bontecou’s early aesthetic is clearly indebted to the found urban detritus sensibility of artists like Robert Rauschenberg. Yet while Rauschenberg, under the influence of both Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, insists upon sharp juxtapositions and open indeterminacies, Bontecou always asserts direct, hands-on control over both her materials and meanings. In his illuminating catalog essay, Robert Storr points out that Bontecou’s work shows signs of the influence of Luciano Fontana and Alberto Burri, artists she was most likely exposed to during her residency in Rome. Both Fontana’s slashed canvases and Burri’s stitched together pieces of burlap turn the picture plane into a kind of skin, damaged by violence and poverty. Bontecou’s work through the early 1960s becomes even more direct, brutal, and allusive. In works from 1960 and 1961, for instance, the curving lines of the works of a few years earlier are replaced by starkly vertical and nearly flat compositions, the thick strips of canvas, nastily stitched with exposed wire, accompanied by belts, straps, buckles, studs, and even gas masks from the Army Surplus store. While the openings in the earlier pieces had a plushly ambivalent erotic lyricism, the works from the early 1960s are riddled with holes that look like they have been blasted out from inside, or they are guarded by metal bars or blocked by saw-toothed blades. In one piece from 1961, for instance, the welded metal bars cast shadows back onto what looks like an eye staring out of a prison; in another, the serrated blades seem to be aggressively guarding a volatile interior.

Bontecou’s work from 1961 and 1962 is blunt, menacing, and at moments nearly figurative—the saw blades read literally as mouths, savage and totemic. Much is made in the disappointingly thin catalogue essays by Elizabeth A.T. Smith and Mona Hadler about Bontecou’s fascination with and ambivalence toward technology, and her horror at the Korean war and the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam, yet these pieces are far too stained and battered to be about technology, and if they allude to war, it is in order to think about the war between the inner and the outer, the intimate self and the public body. For an artist like Louise Bourgeois, the erotic is something visible and embattled. Bontecou is far more puritanical: the exterior of the work, with all its straps and blades, its studs and ropes, is a kind of buttress warding off the viewer and holding back the hydraulic pressure of the interior. These pieces eventually developed into the austere, funereal reliefs of the middle of the 1960s, which, of all Bontecou’s works, are the ones that come closest to the "specific objects" minimalism of Donald Judd (one of Bontecou’s most important early critical supporters) and Robert Morris. One piece from 1964 consists of long, narrow steel plates set in a welded steel frame, painted over in white and shaded with blurry, horizontal streaks of black soot. The saw-blade mouths are shallowly inset and surrounded by deep black, so they appear to be receding, and indeed the whole piece has a kind of ghostly motion, as though in the process of disappearing. In a related but much larger work from 1965, the teeth are set in a kind of mandala high in the center of the piece, with white stripes extending out from it on either side like wings, and below what looks like a gun barrel points out from a black rectangle. The violence and negation implicit in these works is cool and impenetrable; the "inside" of them is not even hinted at.

Beginning in 1966, curving, organic form and also a more generous sense of sculptural relief reenter Bontecou’s work, but with a new weightlessness and eloquence. In a piece from 1966, for instance, striped fiberglass wedges which resemble the shells of sea creatures are nested one within the other, and in the center is a white shape with two holes punched in it. The fiberglass shapes seem to burst open and peel back as they morph downwards, in places bulging out over the welded steel support. As is usual for Bontecou, the surfaces are painted with great care: the stripes are in thin, dry earth tones, which are then highlighted and shadowed and even glazed over. One of the most remarkable pieces on view in the exhibit is a 1966 relief in canvas, epoxy, leather, and wire, which is lit from behind. The translucent forms curve, nest, and warp, the light shining through giving the piece a brittle and radiant sheen. If the white steel reliefs nod towards minimalism, these pieces reach back toward Synthetic Cubism and Futurism as well as the work of Abstract Expressionists like Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning. The sculptures of the late 1950s and early 1960s are about mystery, secrecy, concealment, and violence, the orifices leading into a sublime black abyss; these pieces, by contrast, are oriented toward generative, folding, opening surfaces, the holes less orifices than the points from which the work unravels.

Lee Bontecou is surely one of the finest draftsmen of her generation, but at times her mastery works against her. Her drawings in graphite, charcoal, and ink on paper from 1967, for example, all studies of billowing, fragmented planes closely related to the sculptures of 1966, remain too close to her surrealist ancestors. Their apparent dynamism is purely graphic and depicted, and they lack the sensuous immediacy of her earlier drawings in soot. The more explicitly figurative sculptures in vacuum-formed plastic, and the related drawings, which Bontecou began making in the late 1960s, suffer from their literalness. The reliefs of the mid-1960s are powerful and evocative in part because they are indeterminate, unfolding processes that initiate a dialectic between the skin and the self, the inner and the outer. The sunflowers of 1968 and the various hanging fish of 1969 and 1970 remain static if beautiful objects, relying on a clichéd notion of the "organic" and "natural." Bontecou’s investigations of organic form remain interesting when they remain close to technology and architecture.

The intricate and incredibly delicate mobiles in welded steel, porcelain, cloth, and wire Bontecou has been creating since the early 1980s constitute a powerful new body of work. Many of these works are being exhibited for the first time. In a relatively small piece from 1985, a kind of eyeball stares out from the center of a storm of tiny, interconnected wires and planes resembling the wings of insects. In a piece from 1996, this central eye, fashioned from porcelain, extends out into sharp, bony structures, and the curving canvas planes, stacked on a thin welded steel scaffold above it, resemble sails. Many of the mobiles from 1996 seem to hover between being models of insects and strange contraptions, like boats or flying machines. In the later 1990s, these works become increasingly complicated, systems within systems, microcosms within microcosms, just barely held together. Despite their almost microscopic complexity, and the sense they are whirling at the edge of chaos, these works have great lightness and lyrical energy. They exist in a space that is neither organic nor mechanical, or rather where the organic and the mechanical are folded, one into the other.

In his remarkable 1965 essay on Bontecou, Donald Judd writes: "It is one kind of skepticism to make the work so strong and material that it can only assert itself. This assertion ignores all the forms of solipsism, natural, moral, social and the other generalizations which exceed their basis…Their primitive, oppressive and unmitigated individuality excludes grand interpretations." Though referring to her more brutal reliefs, Judd’s assessment is equally true of Bontecou’s more delicate later work. Lee Bontecou’s work at its best is irreducible and singular, which may be why her periodic forays into more obvious, purely figurative work are so unsuccessful. Judd uses the term "skepticism" in the way understood by American philosophers like Emerson: a suspicion of larger ideologies, of what used to be called "universals," an insistence on not predetermining knowledge in advance, of remaining close to material movements and relations. From the beginning, Bontecou’s work has always been richly allusive, but it is also opaque and difficult to co-opt; it sets thought in motion and refuses to shut it down. It is telling that for more than forty years, Bontecou has resisted genre boundaries and art world ideologies. In an art world still struggling to balance conceptual depth with intuitive sensual immediacy, Bontecou’s career should serve as a model.


Daniel Baird


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2004

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