I’ve been thinking about the Bontecou show off and on for the last couple of weeks and went back the other day to have another look. The early work, from the late ’50s through the ’60s, conveys the angst and anger of that traumatic period. Some of the first works in the exhibition from 1959-60, done after a sojourn in Italy, are exploratory and tentative combining roughly welded black metal frames with distressed reinforced canvas stretched over the openings and held fast with small twisted wires. Dark circular openings of various sizes invite one to move closer and peer into an opaque black interior space. Most of these objects are somber, somewhat delicate, increasingly web-like and organic, but not threatening. They have an arte povera emphasis on found materials assembled in a visceral and experimental way. (A selection of the images from the show can be found here.)
One of the works, a freestanding pod-like wire and canvas object with multiple round openings, is small enough to hold in your hands. It’s an anomaly of sorts, representing a naturalistic path not taken by the artist (or, at least, not included in this exhibition). Rather than pursuing intimate and organic abstraction, Bontecou increased the scale, complexity, and artificiality of the wall-mounted reliefs. Somewhere between 1960 and 1961 the mysterious and lyrical webs of brown canvas took on a dark and menacing power as they replicated and mutated, expanding into shards of frayed grey cloth with grommets. Straps from military equipment appear along with ropes and pipe fittings. Numerous gaping holes suggest vents; others look more like orifices with saw-blade teeth that grimace at the viewer through these monstrous and distressed objects, trapped against the wall, as threatened as they are threatening.
In the mid-’60s the works get larger but also softer, smoother, lighter and more aerodynamic as they sail further out into the viewer’s space, freeing themselves from the wall. The sooty canvas and industrial machine parts give way to leather, chamois, sanded epoxy and fiberglass. “Naturalistic” light brown colors with traces of ochre, red, and white become dominant. A window has been opened; fresh air and sunlight fills the work.
And then, in the late ’60s, the work takes a dramatic turn toward more explicit representation of free-standing natural forms in semi-transparent molded plastic. Fish, flowers, and other forms emerge. Biological forms replace the anxious industrial objects of the previous decade. An exhibition of the new work at Castelli’s in 1971 is not well-received by the critics. Bontecou moves to the country, beginning a long, self-imposed, relatively unbroken leave of absence from the New York art scene. And for most of us, that’s the last we would hear of Bontecou until word that a retrospective was being organized that would include the work she’s been doing for the past two decades.
Bontecou has described her subsequent practice in the following way:
I’ve just kept working, really, the way I did before. Partly through dreams, even daydreams, partly through imagination. I used to go to museums a lot, the Museum of Natural History, and the Met. And galleries, some. But I’d still rather take from what’s around me. On the street, or on the seashore. Like when you walk down the beach and the shadow hits the sand. The ripple of sand is hit by the light, and there you have your darks and lights. [From Eleanor C. Munro, Originals: American Women Artists, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979, 386. Included in the MoMA brochure, Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective.]
It was at precisely this time that another “former New Yorker”, Willem de Kooning, who had moved to the East Hamptons in the ’60s, said, “There is something about being in touch with the sea that makes me feel good…it is the source where most of my painting comes from.” [Willem de Kooning: Paintings, Marla Prather, ed., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994, 198.] For both of these artists, moving out of their lower east side studios and away from the city had a profound and direct impact on their work.
In Bontecou’s case, elaborate biomorphic forms retain a surrealist feel not unrelated to those found in Tanguy, Miro, and others. Disembodied eyes peer out silently from a tangled web of antennae, fractured wings, and sails. Delicate, suspended creatures from another world protect themselves by constant surveillance, rotating gently from side to side as they hang from slender threads. One senses a benign, inquisitive, alien intelligence emanating from them.
I’m intrigued by these objects and not entirely sure what to think about them. They are surreal but without the anxiety of the caged canvas monsters. The drawings (e.g. 1989, 1997 and others) that accompany these sculptures don’t have the same depth of character. They are illustrative, self-evident representations of eyes, veins, shells, and waves. In many ways they diminish the sense of mystery created by the sculptures displayed in the cases and suspended from the ceiling, suggesting a more superficial and naïve fascination with science and spirituality. While I never second-guess the earlier work, I find myself wondering if it’s merely the complexity and the obsessive attention to detail that give the recent sculptures their appeal.