Lee Bontecou at The Museum of Modern Art

Lee Bontecou, Untitled (1961), welded steel, canvas, black fabric, rawhid, copper wire and soot, 6′ 8-1/4″ x 7′ 5″ x 34-3/4″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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In 1972, the American artist Lee Bontecou (b. 1931), whose drawings and sculpture are on display in a career-spanning retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, turned her back on the New York art world. Within that intensely competitive milieu, she had become an “art star” before the term became commonplace. Leo Castelli, whose gallery was among the most prestigious and influential in the world, had represented her work since 1960, the same year Art in America lauded Bontecou in an article titled “New Talent.” The work was subsequently featured in mainstream publications like TimeLifeVogueMademoiselle, and Cosmopolitan. 

Bontecou’s work met with significant acclaim. Donald Judd, an artist and critic known for a begrudging eye, praised the sculptures as having “an individuality equaled in the work of only a few artists.” He dubbed Bontecou “one of the best artists working anywhere.”

Depending on whom you talk to, Bontecou’s exit from the art scene was either foolhardy or heroic. Walking away from Castelli was, in career terms, the equivalent of shooting oneself in the foot. A veteran painter acidly describes Bontecou as “the heroine of self-righteous art students everywhere.” 

Frustrated with the deadlines of a gallery schedule, a regimen not conducive to the come-and-go inspirations of art-making, Bontecou moved to a farm in rural Pennsylvania. (Additional factors included the emotional and physical involvement of raising a young daughter and caring for an aging father.) The refusal to participate in a scene increasingly fueled by fashion and commercial necessity did, over the long run, endow the reclusive artist with a certain cachet. An artist who willingly fled the limelight! Who can imagine such a thing, particularly in an age of shameless showboaters like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst? For novelty value alone, Lee Bontecou: A Retrospectivehas to count as an event.

The retrospective gathers Bontecou’s signature achievements of the 1960s and brings to light the later, post-New York sculptures and drawings. Walking through MoMA’s galleries you can’t help but wonder how Bontecou’s career turnabout affected the work. The solitude of the studio poses its own peculiar set of challenges. But divorcing oneself from the cultural pressurcooker that is Manhattan must register in the oeuvre itself. After all, the art scene determined, in large part, Bontecou’s vision. “The most wonderful period of abstract expressionism” is her description of the formative years spent in New York City. For an artist of few words, a specific nod to precedent intimates a significant debt.

Yet it was less the Abstract Expressionists that influenced Bontecou than the Surrealist impulse that wheedled its way through their work. The earliest piece on view at MoMA, an untitled terracotta piece from 1957, depicts a totemic birdlike creature. Bontecou’s attempt to tap into primordial archetypes, to gain access to truths and emotions that have been stifled by the constraints of civilization, is Surrealism’s legacy to the New York School. Bontecou’s Surrealist streak would continue in the subsequent relief sculptures. Though the means became more abstract, the scope of reference was no less fundamental or clear: The body, as disagreeable material fact, became the locus of Bontecou’s art.

The wall reliefs of the 1960s for which Bontecou is best known partake of the junkyard aesthetic typical of the era, embodied in artists as various as Robert Rauschenberg, Edward Keinholz, and Richard Stankiewicz. There wasn’t a material or technique extant that wasn’t so tattered it couldn’t be drafted into the cause of art. Bontecou’s sculptures are literally stitched together from discarded bits of canvas and stretched over welded steel armatures. A hole, or series of holes, punctuates each jutting and scalloped structure, creating a disconcerting spatial void.

 Bontecou’s sense of craft, in particular the barbed-wirelike stitching, radiates an unseemly compulsion not entirely compensated by the rough-hewn dexterity with which the pieces are shaped. Threatening and dirty, burnt and weathered, the fetishlike sculptures are replete with unpleasant allusions—to torn flesh, military technology, and bodily orifices.

One of the chief—and most contentious—attributes of Bontecou’s work is its sexual component. An untitled sculpture from 1964, with its ascending array of grimacing apertures, could well serve as an illustration of vagina dentata. Bontecou steadfastly insists that the hole is a sculptural conduit for tapping into the unknowability of the universe. Sputnik was, by the artist’s own estimation, a pivotal and inspiring event in her life. 

The sci-fi influence is in evidence—try not thinking of the film Alien when looking at some of the sculptures—but Bontecou protests too much. One of the liabilities of Surrealist-based art is its literalism, its one-to-one dependence on extra-aesthetic content. As a sculptor, Bontecou’s command of form is limited by the inability to transcend mere symbolism. Bontecou’s holes are never more than fairly obvious allusions. To deny their bodily referents is to willfully blind oneself to the source of the work’s power—as well as the root of its limitations.

Bontecou’s aesthetic, while of a piece in terms of sculptural sophistication, became increasingly cloistered. The early wall reliefs divulge an artist cognizant of the surrounding culture—the work’s mute, confrontational character stands in awkward sympathy with Minimalist art. From the early 1970s onward, Bontecou’s work becomes involved with fantasies of a forbidding and private nature.

The nightmarish creatures Bontecou created from vacuum-formed plastic or delineated in meticulous drawings are fascinating as emblems of one woman’s imagination. Exquisite craft offers the viewer a degree of entry into the work. Yet Bontecou’s relationship to form is not unlike the taxidermist’s relationship to life—it is capable of homage, not animation. Bontecou’s art lacks sculptural malleability, and this downgrades it from a compelling reality to an inventory of icky inventions that keeps us at arm’s length.

The final gallery of the exhibition is filled with Bontecou’s recent work: most spectacularly, an array of six ornate mobiles. Here her fascination with nature and the cosmos reaches a prickly apotheosis. Each sculpture seems an explosive force rendered static, whether it takes the form of the exoskeleton of an insect, a spaceship, or a fragile combination of the two. Still, they feel out of place at MoMA or, that is to say, in public. Though the work hangs out of reach of visitors; it feels threatened by them. It’s as if Bontecou’s delicately imagined entities couldn’t withstand the force of our attention.

If Bontecou’s vision is stifled by its Surrealist bent, it does provide a bulwark for her independence as an artist. Relying on the prerequisites of one’s imagination is likely to provide a rationale for refusing to acknowledge the world outside. Lee Bontecou: A Retrospectivetells the story of a sculptor whose art demanded a separation from the distractions of contemporary culture. In that respect, it is a vindication of integrity and isolation.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the August 20, 2004 edition of Slate.

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