From the Archives: Lee Bontecou—Abstract Sinister

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Lee Bontecou died on Tuesday, Nov. 8, age 91. This article was published in Art in America in September 1993, on the occasion of her traveling exhibition organized by the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art. It was the first time her work had been publicly shown since her retreat from the art world in the 1970s.

During the early 1960s, Lee Bontecou was hailed as one of the most promising young sculptors of her generation. Her elaborate abstract wall sculptures made of canvas stretched over metal arma­tures were widely exhibited in the United States and Europe throughout the decade. In 1972, she was given a full-scale retrospec­tive at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.1 But today her work is seldom seen. Following her early acclaim and sudden rise to prominence, Bontecou effectively removed herself from the art world. Even though she taught in the art department at Brooklyn College throughout the 1970s and ’80s and continued to make art, she has cho­sen in recent years to maintain a safe distance from the realm of galleries, museums, collectors and critics. An exhibition that was seen at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art last spring and opens at the Parrish Museum in Southampton later this month offers the first opportunity in many years to reassess Bontecou’s work.

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After studying with William Zorach at the Art Students’ League in the early 1950s, Bontecou began her career making quasi-naturalistic bronze sculptures of animals. By 1959, she had shifted her practice to small- to mid-sized abstract constructions made from strips of sal­vaged canvas and burlap stretched over welded steel frames, held in place by pieces of twisted wire. In 1960, the year of her first show at Leo Castelli Gallery, Bontecou dramatically increased the size and three-dimensionality of these predominantly wall-mounted reliefs, and began to incorporate into them an array of funky materials such as rope, denim, leather and black velvet-the latter used to create the backdrops for deep cavities within many of the pieces.

In the art-world context of the early ’60s, Bontecou’s works seemed both eccentric and hard to categorize. Not only did they fail to conform to the emergent art movements of the time, such as Minimalism or Pop, but it was often unclear whether they were paintings or sculptures. Although several of her pieces were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1961 exhibition “The Art of Assemblage,” Bontecou consistently disclaimed any affinity for the junk esthetic or the additive properties of collage, stressing instead that the found objects incorporated into her sculptures were incidental to their essential character. Donald Judd saw Bontecou’s works as “specific objects” and praised their for­mal unity. In 1965 he wrote,

The power of Bontecou’s reliefs is remarkably single. The three primary aspects, the scale, the structure, and the image, are simple, definite, and powerful. . . . The work asserts its own existence, form and power. It becomes an object in its own right.2

In addition to this objectlike quality, Bontecou’s reliefs display a keen formal awareness in their heroic, almost Abstract-Expressionist scale (many of the reliefs are over 6 feet square), their often surprising asymmetrical compositions and their Cubistic fragmentation of form (Bontecou’s predominant palette of tans and browns may also allude to the near-monochrome phase of Analytic Cubism, ca. 1910–11). The color and intense three-dimensionality also impart to the reliefs a topographic quality; their deep craters and relatively vast expanses suggest environmental scale and meaning.

In various pieces of 1961 and ’62 (after 1960, all her sculptures are untitled), Bontecou positioned found objects ranging from fan blades and other industrial components to war-surplus materials such as gas masks and helmets within and across her increasingly eccentric surfaces. Although the sculptures remained emphatically nonspecific and nonnarrative, the embedded objects began to endow them with unsettling organic or even figurative connotations. The deep voids, often containing sawtooth blades or metal grills, were interpreted as vacant eye sockets or gaping mouths with jagged teeth. As Carter Ratcliff observed in his catalogue essay for Bontecou’s 1972 retrospective, one senses the “distinctively animal—not vegetable—quality of Bontecou’s folded, nestled, layered forms. Hence the powerful specificity of the openings they reveal—eyes, mouths, vaginas.”

At a time when few women artists achieved widespread recognition, discussions of Bontecou’s sculpture often revolved around its putative sensuality and implied sexual imagery. Not only were the protruding circular openings often described by writers as bodily orifices (even “vagina dentatae”), but critics often found the commanding physicality and inscrutable brutality of the sculptures at odds with their notions of feminine art or sensibility. But in a 1962 essay, critic Dore Ashton challenged “the obvious sexual connotations so often invoked for her work,” saying that the circular cavities could just as easily represent “sadistic symbols of destruction, most prominently the mouth of a gun.”3 Poet John Ashbery also voiced discomfort with the prevalent critical emphasis on sexuality in Bontecou’s sculptures, stating that “it is hard to feel very erotic about something that looks like the inside of a very old and broken-down air-conditioning unit.”4

If anything, the objects found in Bontecou’s reliefs, including guns, zippers, rivets, metal grates and small machines, seemed to refer to a masculine world of war, violence and destruction. In Bontecou’s early drawings, images of military equipment are particularly specific and forceful. Highly detailed renderings of gas masks are eerily dispersed across the white surface of one drawing. In another, from 1961, a medieval helmet is juxtaposed with flowers, snail shells and insect parts. Besides indicating Bontecou’s complex method of cross-referencing her interests, these drawings record her ongoing fascination with processes of transformation—both growth and destruction. Frequently, the instruments of war are transformed in Bontecou’s works into shapes and constructions with benign, organic overtones. For example, the sculpture she created for the lobby of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center in 1964 includes the Plexiglas turret from a World War II bomber; yet, overall, the remarkably aerodynamic relief downplays overt references to war in creating a lyrical evocation of flight.

Although Bontecou generally avoided discussing the meaning of her images, in a rare statement for the catalogue of the Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Americans 1963,” she suggested that her goal was to “build things that express our relation to this countryto other coun­triesto this world-to other worlds-in terms of myself.”5 The precise meaning of this relationship was explained only years later when Bontecou admitted that the iconography of these early projects was in part political, a response to the menacing specter of war and global destruction that she felt in the early ’60s.6

Bontecou’s sculpture of the mid-’60s marked a departure from the brutal and brooding character of much of her earlier work. Formally more complex in their physical texture and three-dimension­ality, these pieces also incorporated a new range of colors (including black, red, gold and ivory). The illusionism of their spatial projections was heightened by shading with soot and the modeling of certain key parts with epoxy. Invoking a palpable dynamism and organic profusion, these later sculptures present a florid proliferation of faceted, overlap­ ping parts. References to biological life (plants, snails and the shells of sea creatures) and to the billowing forms of sails recur from 1965 to ’67. One provocative 1966 work incorporates the shells of horseshoe crabs as “eyelids” over the openings-an oblique reference to the artist’s love of sea life, stemming from her childhood summers spent in Nova Scotia.7

Perhaps as a result of Bontecou’s renewed interest in plant and ani­mal forms, her work took an abrupt and frankly figurative turn in the early ’70s. She began to experiment with vacuum-formed plastics, creating startling works that resembled strange flowers with large petals and drooping tendrils or huge armor-plated fish. If these pieces seemed like props out of some sci-fl spectacle, they also reflected Bontecou’s ongoing fascination with processes of transformation-whether observed, remembered or felt. Her attention to phantasmagoria and mutations of all sorts signaled a complex tension between lyricism and savagery that Bontecou found throughout nature. And, at the same time, by combining elements of nature and mechanistic culture, these hypertrophic and slightly sinister works functioned as a statement about Bontecou’s growing environmental concerns.

Though, at the time, Bontecou’s figurative sculptures confounded critics and collectors, from today’s perspective they might well be her most fascinating works, both for their inherent esthetic interest and for their kinship with the work of other artists. They are particularly inter­esting in relation to the more abstract works of contemporaneous Process artists, such as Lynda Benglis, Keith Sonnier, Bruce Nauman and Alan Saret, all of whom used wire, plastic and other industrial materials. Bontecou’s sculptures also bear strong affinities to the work of Eva Hesse, who recorded her enthusiasm for Bontecou’s reliefs in her diaries from the mid-’60s.

Commingling the organic and inorganic, not only in form and imagery but also in terms of technique, Bontecou constructs a precarious and compelling tension between order and decrepitude. The conceptual and visual relationships between a medieval helmet and a flower, the teeth of an industrial saw blade and those of a fish, the twist of a piece of wire precariously joining a corner of canvas to a bent-steel frame and a sleek, metallic automobile motor, the stenciled name of a soldier on a piece of canvas duffle bag and the cosmic implications of blackness at the bottom of a craterlike void, all function as resonant elements of Bontecou’s highly personal and elaborately enigmatic artistic vocabu­lary. As John Perreault noted of Bontecou’s sculpture in 1971, “The best thing about her work when it hits is that it has nothing to do with anything. It is suffocating, which is the best praise I can give.”8

When questioned about the distance she has maintained from the art world for the past 20 years, Bontecou points to the insidious and detrimental effects of external pressures on the artist. Asserting the primacy of her own artistic needs and creative energies, Bontecou describes her withdrawal from the art world as a conscious decision to walk away from a conventionally successful career. ‘You have to let it go,” she says. “What I saw happening to Pollock’s work was that it was being explored by everybody but himself and I thought: he doesn’t have a chance.”9

Bontecou feels that her work was misread when it was considered as an erotic or feminist statement.10 “As far as the sexual thing goes, it was never an issue,” she recently stated. “The sexual world is wonderful, but it isn’t everything. . . . It was sort of a surprise when [that interpretation] kept coming up.” Likewise, she recalls being unconcerned with her status as a woman in a predominantly male art world, although she was aware of the gender ambiguity of her first name: “I didn’t even think about it until I had my show [in 1960 at Leo Castelli] and many people were disappointed that I wasn’t a man. I just brushed it off, but it was really disgustingIt’s just the art that should be accounted for, not who has made it.”

Bontecou has few regrets about the fact that her reputation rests almost exclusively on her early production. She prefers to develop her current work in privacy, since, as she says, she hasn’t “gotten it all together yet.” Nevertheless, she points out that there is no discontinuity between the work she is making now—which this author has not seen—and her earlier art. In recent correspondence, she stated,

My most persistently recurring thought is to work in a scope as far-reaching as possible; to express a feeling of freedom in all its necessary ramifications—its awe, beauty, magnitude, horror and baseness. This feeling embraces ancient, present and future worlds: from caves to jet engines, landscapes to outer space, from visible nature to the inner eye, all encompassed in cohesive works of my inner world. This total freedom is essential.

1. The exhibition was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Mar. 25–May 7, 1972. Bontecou’s works on paper were later surveyed in “Prints and Drawings by Lee Bontecou” at the Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn., May 2–June 15, 1975.

2. Donald Judd, “Lee Bontecou,” Arts Magazine, April 1965, p. 17.

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3. Dore Ashton, “Illusion and Fantasy: Lee,” Metro Young 19, 1962, p. 29.

4. John Ashbery, “Fires That Burn in the Heart of the Void,” New York Herald Tribune, Paris, Apr. 20, 1965, p. 5.

5. Lee Bontecou, artist’s statement in Dorothy C. Miller, ed., Americans 1963, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1963, p. 12.

6. Bontecou discusses this aspect of her work in interviews with Tony Towle, “Two Conversations with Lee Bontecou,” Print Collector’s Newsletter, May–June 1971, p. 26, and Eleanor Munro, Originals: American Women Artists, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1979, pp. 384, 386.

7. Interview with Bontecou in Munro, Originals, p. 379–80.

8. John Perreault, “Art,” Village Voice, June 10, 1971, p. 28.

9. Quotations from Bontecou (unless otherwise attributed) derive from a telephone conversation with the author, Feb. 19, 1993, and previous correspondence.

10. A recent reassessment of the feminist content of Bontecou’s early work is Mona Hadler, “Lee Bontecou—Heart of a Conquering Darkness,” Source: Notes in the History of Art, Fall 1992, pp. 38–44.

“Lee Bontecou: Sculpture and Drawings of the 1960s” appeared this past spring at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles [Mar. 28–May 16]. It opens this month at the Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, N.Y. [Sept. 19–Nov. 74], and will travel to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City [Jan. 2–Feb. 27, 1994].

Author: Elizabeth A.T. Smith, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, organized the Bontecou exhibition. This article is a revised and expanded version of her essay in the exhibition brochure.

This article originally appeared in the September 1993 issue, pp. 82–87. 


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