“I like space that never stops. Black is like that. Holes and boxes mean secrets and shelter.” Lee Bontecou
Lee Bontecou’s ability to condense the dreams, anxieties, and fears of her time into sculptural form made her one of the most important artists in New York in the 1960s. Untitled, created in 1965, is a sublime example of her most renowned body of work: large-scale wall sculptures fabricated in the early 1960s. With a complexity that defies rigid categorization, the work exemplifies the artist’s ability to simultaneously express the organic and mechanical, abstraction and figuration, reality and fantasy. Untitled represents Bontecou’s longstanding desire in art and in society to express “as much of life as possible—no barriers—no boundaries—all freedom in every sense.”
Born in Rhode Island in 1931, Bontecou has vivid memories of World War II. Both of her parents joined the effort. Her father created gliders for the military and her mother wired transmitters for submarine navigation. She studied sculpture and welding after completing her general education and received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Rome in 1957. Her time in the city shaped her future artistic practice: she was attracted to the inartistic objects and machinery she saw on the streets and began experimenting with new materials. Bontecou began using an acetylene torch to create soot in her drawings, a practice she would soon apply to her sculptures. She was in Rome when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and was fascinated by the deep and black vastness of space; the dusty blackness of the soot evoked for her the joyful mystery of the heavens and the terrible conflict to control the space below it. “Getting the black,” she said, “opened everything up.”
Bontecou returned to America in 1958 and moved to a studio in New York’s East Village. Her surroundings were immediately incorporated into her work. Conveyor belts discarded by the laundry beneath her apartment, bits of canvas, and pieces of wire and machinery left on the streets were twisted and stretched into three-dimensional wall hangings. The resulting fabrications were characterized above all for their ingenious, unsettling use of space: gaping black cavities that excited both fear and fantasy. Donald Judd, who considered Bontecou’s works to be proto-Minimalist, described this contradiction in an essay published in 1965: “This threatening and possibly functioning object is at eye level. The image cannot be contemplated; it has to be dealt with as an object, at least viewed with puzzlement and wariness, as would be any strange object, and at most seen with terror, as would a beached mine or a well hidden in the grass. The image extends from something as social as war to something as private as sex, making one an aspect of the other” (Donald Judd, “Lee Bontecou,” Arts Magazine, April 1965, p. 20).
The extreme tension of the Cold War period, the fighting in Korea, the spirit of exploration in the space race, and the yearning for freedom and equality in the civil rights movement all deeply affected Bontecou’s work in the early 1960s. She has since described her sculptures of this time as “war equipment with teeth.” Her fear and anger were heightened by her memories of the rhetoric and media images of warfare prevalent during World War II. Some of the holes in her sculptures, viewed by many as eyes or sexual orifices, were covered in bars reminiscent of the prisons, camps, and barbed wire of war. Others were given a sharp metallic grin. Bontecou had been struck by the legend of the Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth) in Rome: “If you put your hand in and you tell a lie something would bite it off” (Lee Bontecou cited in: Mona Hadler, “Lee Bontecou’s ‘Warnings,’” Art Journal, vol. 53, Winter 1994, p. 57). Assemblage artist Joseph Cornell, a friend of Bontecou in the early 1960s, noted in a 1962 journal entry that “in other days there were the ‘mouth of truth’ and the ‘lion’s mouth’ of the Venetian Inquisitions, then, there is the terror of the yawning mouths of canons, of volcanic craters, of windows opened to receive your flight without return, and the jaws of great beasts; and now we have Lee’s warnings” (Joseph Cornell cited in: Ibid., p. 56).
The “space sibyl,” as Cornell called Bontecou, has created in Untitled psycho-sexual imagery that evokes the violence of war and of desire. The viewer is drawn to the sculpture to better understand its textures and layers and curves; at the same time, the work commands respect and brutal honesty. Untitled is a barricade of steel, with gun barrels sticking out from square holes and grills like gnashing teeth. The strong horizontals of the welded strips of steel—white, grey, white, grey—is broken by the circles and squares of black space and the vertical strips that frame the center section of the work. The sections form a sort of triptych that grows out and away from the wall; its precision belies the strenuous work of welding. Its slightly undulating surface, combined with Bontecou’s characteristic soot shading and canvas lining, lends a naturalism that ties the otherwise mystical creation to our own world.
The fierce, powerful authenticity exuded by Untitled and other contemporary sculptures afforded the artist a singular position in the art world: Bontecou was the sole female artist represented by the famed Leo Castelli Gallery throughout the 1960s. By 1963, when Bontecou was just thirty-two years old, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum had both acquired large steel-and-canvas sculptures. The present work’s exhibition history is a testament to the many meanings assigned to Bontecou’s oeuvre. The shows, from Leo Castelli Gallery and Greene Naftali in the 1990s and Michael Rosenfeld and Barbara Mathes Gallery in the 2010s, have showcased the present work's varied embodiment of medium, gender, and era. Though Bontecou’s work of the early 1960s stands at a historical crossroads—the Surrealists she so admired behind, her output alongside the Assemblage artists and inspiration to feminists, her seeming anticipation of Minimalism—it is unequivocally her own. In Untitled one can see Bontecou’s fears, desires, anxieties, and yearning for freedom. The zeitgeist of the 1960s hangs on the wall and bares its teeth.
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