LEE BONTECOU: All Freedom in Every Sense

The Museum of Modern Art | April 16–August 30, 2010

Lee Bontecou, American, born 1931. “Untitled” (1985). Charcoal, pencil, and colored pencil on colored paper. 22 × 30” (55.9 × 76.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection Gift © 2010 Lee Bontecou

A wall-sized, black-and-white, 1963 portrait of Lee Bontecou in her Wooster Street studio says it all: the artist stands with her back to us, acetylene torch in hand, gazing out at the monstrous canvas and steel relief she has just created. The air around her possesses an electric quality, singed with the same sort of crackling dry heat used to fashion her giant monoliths. In this world, governed mostly by men—i.e. Johns, Judd, Rauschenberg, and Stella—Bontecou is king. On the opposite side of MoMA’s wall image, in a small foyer on the fourth floor of the museum, a mini-retrospective of the artist’s oeuvre, spanning over 40 years, drives this idea home. Here, viewers are confronted with a dizzying yet intimate array of artistic production: Bontecou’s signature metal and canvas wall sculptures; a number of graphite and soot drawings, meticulously dazzling in their complexity; hanging mobiles and a duo of monochromatic lithograph prints. Each piece uncovers a different layer of ideological concern. In some we see an angry, traumatized response to an era ravaged by war; in others the patient, detail-oriented hand of the trifectite artist, woman, and mother. All reveal an aura of personal strength and creative agility, albeit one shrouded in the mysterious folds of industry and science fiction.

Titled All Freedom in Every Sense, the MoMA retrospective acts as a lesson in form-follows-function. For almost half a century, Bontecou has left her work “Untitled,” a pointed and subversive act directed at elucidating not only the malleability of artistic output and its reception, but of the ambiguousness of our known reality. The artist’s early pieces from the ’50s and ’60s reveal a fascination with such boundary-bending paradigms. Painstakingly contrived soot and graphite renderings of sovereign eyes, cosmic orbs, and bolted armatures imply the slippage between the borders of our world—knowable and organic—and the world of mechanized science. In other drawings, the abyss of white space gives birth to a series of never-ending tunnels, doubling, one wonders, as a blueprint for an alien spaceship or a futuristic depiction of the sublime? Which interpretation is correct is not the point. The implication is rather that both avenues of analysis share equal validity: freedom in form, freedom in function.

At the other end of the spectrum are Bontecou’s welded steel wall-reliefs. As opposed to the delicate intricacy of the drawings, these sculptures (by far the most famous of the artist’s works) possess an untamed, almost crude physicality. In “Untitled” (1961), soiled canvas panels obtained from laundry conveyor belts act as a fibrous skin for the work’s geometrically perverse frame, its protruding metallic edges, massive and angular in their convincing omnipotence. Thin strips of copper wire hold the grimy, soot-coated canvas in place, the seams and binds exposed as if to reveal a mad seamstress’s opus turned inside-out. The imagery itself, which consists of multiple panels organized around a central black hole, suggests everything from barren alien landscapes to space age technology to Plato’s cave. They are a critique of the American war machine, an outcry against the yawning terror left at our doorstep in the aftermath of the arms race, an ode to the pioneering nature of space exploration, and/or an existential question in tangible form. Undeniably aggressive in scale and construction, these ominous and foreboding works were the driving force behind Bontecou’s fame, defining her as an ardent competitor amongst her male contemporaries. This place atop the podium, however, was not where Bontecou envisioned herself.

Lee Bontecou, American, born 1931. “Untitled” (1980-1998). Welded steel, porcelain, wire mesh, canvas, and wire. 7 × 8 × 6’ (213.4 × 243.8 × 182.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Philip Johnson (by exchange) and the Nina and Gordon Bunshaft Bequest Fund. © 2010 Lee Bontecou.

In late 1971, the artist moved out of New York and took up permanent residence in the Pennsylvania countryside. There, her work changed significantly, moving away from the dread-infused canvases of the late ’60s into more primordial terrain. Minimal color is of the essence in this later work, the most impressive displays of which are evident in those pieces in which Bontecou pushes her gray scale to its outer limits—the black threatening to engulf while the use of white grounds the threateningly vacuous demon in structural form. As the artist states in relation to her soot drawings, her intent has always been to “harness the black.” Two lithographs from this period, “Tenth Stone” (1968) and “Untitled” (1976) reveal Bontecou’s increasing interest in the natural world. While not as compelling as her earlier works, there is an element of hope in these images that is tantalizingly infectious; the disquieting echoes of H.G. Wells and George Orwell are put to rest.

At the center of the exhibition hangs a free-form mobile, the coup de grace of Bontecou’s 2004 retrospective at MoMA Queens. Constructed over the course of 18 years, this personal galaxy rejects the expanse of the void for a fresh, new perspective. At the heart of the piece is an indigo sphere, solar in its gravitational pull, from which extends a complex system of porcelain orbs, flesh-colored mesh screens, and hundreds of pieces of piano wire. Its tangled skeleton typifies the interconnectedness of living. Fusion. Fission. Absorption. Repulsion. Finally free of the city’s concrete partitions, Bontecou has mastered the ethereal, boundless art of drawing in space.


Kara L. Rooney

Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.