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Lee Bontecou

Lee Bontecou
untitled [eye sculpture]

Lee Bontecou
untitled ["prisons" sculpture]

Lee Bontecou
untitled [chrysalis sculpture]

Lee Bontecou
untitled [flower sculpture]

Lee Bontecou
untitled [fish sculpture]

Lee Bontecou
untitled [suspended sculpture]

[Plate 123]
Lee Bontecou
untitled [suspended sculpture]

by Victor M. Cassidy

"Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective" is on view at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, Feb. 14-May 30, 2004. The exhibition comprises approximately 70 sculptures and 80 drawings dating from the late 1950s to 2003. Works on paper alternate with the sculptures so visitors can see how this artist develops ideas.

Bontecou (b. 1931) came to public notice in 1960 with a one-person show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. She was the only woman artist in a group that included Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Donald Judd, Jasper Johns and James Rosenquist. During the 1960s, her work appeared in several exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, including "Americans" (1963). In 1972, she had a mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Soon after this, at the height of her success, Bontecou left Manhattan. For 30 years, she taught art, worked alone in her studio and exhibited rarely. Ferociously independent, she rebuffed all attempts to pigeonhole her art as "feminine" or "feminist" and make political capital from it. There are "no fixed meanings in my work," she says.

Response to her time
In a personal statement that she wrote for the present retrospective, Bontecou states that "the natural world and its visual wonders and horrors -- man-made devices and their mind-boggling engineering feats and destructive abominations, elusive human nature and its multiple ramifications from the sublime to unbelievable abhorrences -- to me are all one. It is in the spirit of this feeling that the primary influences on my work have occurred." Stated simply, Bontecou's work is a response to her time.

In October of 1957, the Soviet satellite Sputnik orbited the earth and took pictures of deep space. Three years later, Jacques Piccard descended to the bottom of the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean to photograph deep-sea creatures in this unlighted world. The media published these images along with exuberant accounts of technological progress and predictions of triumphs to come. The young Bontecou responded to the spirit of this time, but distanced herself by making her work a formal exploration, synthesizing visual material from many sources and avoiding narrative specificity.

In 1958, Bontecou discovered that an acetylene torch with the oxygen turned down deposited bands of velvety black soot on paper. Experimenting with this technique, she produced drawings, which she called "worldscapes," including one that was dominated by an oval, eye-like form at the top. She would later say that the blackness of outer space had inspired these works and also acknowledged that the color black was liberating. "Getting the black," she stated, "opened everything up. . . I had to find a way of harnessing it."

During this time, Bontecou began to weld steel wire into box-like forms and to fill in the frames with stretched pieces of muslin or cotton that she had sooted with the torch. She attached fabric to this armature with fine wire, leaving the ends loose. Wall-hung and freestanding, these constructions have a large circular opening in the front that is colored black inside to create an illusion of great depth. This is the Bontecou "eye."

Some see the eye as a vulva, but I associate it with outer space, a sense of the unknown, the human eye and the artist's presence. Bontecou produced eye pieces until 1967. Some are landscape-like, while others suggest automobile dashboards or propeller airplanes. As she gained experience, Bontecou built these works to follow the armature rather than making them box-like. They became sculptures instead of painting-like constructions.

The eye pierces the surface of the sculpture to reveal unknown, unknowable territory within. The artist does not just cut a hole. She builds an entire structure of wire and cloth. In a 1965 essay that's reprinted in the show catalogue, Donald Judd writes that the structure surrounding the eye is more important than the eye itself. He adds that Bontecou was "one of the first to make the structure of a three-dimensional work coextensive with its total shape." Structure, real or implied, is at the center of every Bontecou sculpture.

During the early 1960s, the artist made eye sculptures in which she substituted industrial black rubber cloth and other dark materials for the tan colored canvas and muslin she had used earlier. Inside the eye hole, she placed two saw blades with the metal bowed outward and the serrated edges pointing toward each other to look like teeth. Sometimes she covered this mouth-like form with grillwork or gave the piece several mouths and sets of teeth. Ugly, hostile and confrontational, these works, which she called "Prisons," may express the artist's anxiety over nuclear annihilation. The Cold War was much in the news as she was making them.

Nature enters the work
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, an attack on pollution that is credited with launching today's environmental movement, was published in 1962. A few years later, Bontecou began to make sculptures and drawings of chrysalises, flowers, birds and fish. According to her, this work suggests what might happen to plants and animals if we do not take care of the environment.

Nature is Bontecou's point of departure for these very formal sculptures. The chrysalis pieces have a rhythmic internal structure and geometric patterning on their carapace-like skins. These pieces recall balsa airplane models, which the artist is said to have enjoyed in youth. Bontecou's flower sculptures look more like floor fans than anything that ever was alive. She makes them by fastening together vacuum-formed plastic shapes and plates. Closely related to the flowers are suspended fish sculptures, which she makes from armor-like plates of vacuum-formed plastic and joins with fasteners.

The show ends triumphantly with suspended sculptures and sculptural objects that Bontecou began to make in the early 1980s. She has worked for years on some of these pieces, which grow in several directions from a spherical, eye-like center made of porcelain. Inserting steel wires into holes in this core, she attaches wire mesh, silk, small porcelain shapes, and more.

These works suggest celestial bodies, insects, and microscopic images of the human nervous system. Bontecou employs porcelain, which was a new material for her, to make an explicitly eye-like form. Suspension allows her to work freely in three dimensions. She stretches fabric in these pieces to make a variety of shapes. Speaking of these sculptures to a Chicago interviewer, Bontecou said: "I've delved back into the old work. . . and [pushed] it further."

At an age when most people have long since retired, Lee Bontecou continues to produce fresh, adventuresome, powerful sculpture. With this exhibition, she takes her place as one of the premier artists of our time.

VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.