publication of the International Sculpture Center
The Uncanny Eye:
by Collette Chattopadhyay
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(detail), c. 19801998. Welded steel, porcelain, wire mesh,
canvas, and wire, 7 x 8 x 6 ft.
On the heels of
a meteoric rise to acclaim in the 1960s, Lee Bontecou withdrew from the
art scene in the early 70s to quietly pursue what she calls new
directions. Her long absence from the exhibition circuit led to
a virtual exclusion from most art history texts. But Bontecous long-awaited
retrospective, which opened at the UCLA Hammer Museum and travels to Chicagos
Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Modern Art in Queens, promises
to change all that. The exhibition should grant this artist (once the
sole female protagonist in Leo Castellis gallery) her rightful place
in art history alongside male peers such as John Chamberlain, Robert Rauschenberg,
and Jasper Johns. To Bontecous credit, the exhibited works stand
up to the din of speculation that commenced with the shows opening.
Co-curated by Elizabeth
A.T. Smith, chief curator of the MCA in Chicago, and Ann Philbin, director
of the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the exhibition is presented
chronologically, opening with Bontecous relatively unknown early
1950s works and concluding with her heretofore unexhibited works of the
last 30 years. In the final analysis, this massive breadth reinforces
the dazzling and formidable power of her work from the 1960s, which is
granted a spatial centrality within the layout of the sprawling show.
The intimate opening
chamber in L.A. provided a study in contrasts. Comfortably accommodating
only two to four visitors at a time, it presented four sculptures and related
drawings dating from the late 1950s. Two untitled sculptures of standing
beasts blend rough-hewn surfaces with haunting psychological presence, embodying
an indeterminacy of meaning that becomes one of Bontecous celebrated
hallmarks. With its dark hollow eyes straddling a crooked beak-nose, the
untitled falcon-owl is uncanny. Blindly staring into a void, the three-times-life-size,
primordial bird halts briefly as though studying something behind us. Its
cracked and fissured surface hints at the passage of time, suggesting that
the creature may have endured an eon-long hibernation before re-emerging
to squint at the present light of day.
1957. Bronze, 27 x 12 x 57 in.
Even more eerie is
a dog-horse creature whose body lags behind its straining guided-missile
head. Disturbingly, the top of its head bears a singular eye/ mouth/nose
orifice that suggests both sight and sensation. This hollowed eye guides
the creature in ways that pass beyond the naturalistic world to a realm
below the horizon. As though sonar-driven, the animals eye accentuates
physical and visceral experience rather than distanced, rational knowledge,
interjecting into the artistic discourse an aesthetic that the French
philosopher Georges Bataille called the informe.1
The significant difference
between the falcon-owl and the dog-horse lies in the nature of their hollowed
eye-voids. The birds eyes link to canonical art historical interests
in form and content. By contrast, the dog-horse beasts singular optical
orifice advances toward a formless zone that throughout the 20th century
remained generally disdained by critical discourse, though it was mined
and explored by countless artists from Picasso to Giacometti, Dubuffet,
Rauschenberg, and Matta-Clark among others. Discussions concerning the informe
or formless were first introduced in the late 1920s by Bataille in his polemical
anti-Breton writings and broadly ignored by art history. Yet the concepts
outlined by Bataille continued to develop a silent artistic dialogue championed
as a major artistic terrain in the 1996 exhibition LInforme:
Mode demploi, which was curated by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind
1964. Welded steel, canvas, epoxy, and wire, 9 x 27 x 14 in.
early sculptures foreshadow her proclivity for abstracting natural forms
and endowing them with multivalent innuendo, the works formal attributes
converse with the sculptures of such European artists as Marino Marini,
Reg Butler, and Lynn Chadwick. Having won a Fulbright scholarship in 1956,
Bontecou spent an academic year in Italy and then opted to stay on for
an extra year.3 In 1956 the Venice Biennale awarded the International
Prize for Sculpture to Chadwick, and the impact of his sci-fi gothicism
seems to have stoked Bontecous emerging visual vocabulary, fueling
her predilection for dystopian visions. Her early animal sculptures relate
not only to Chadwicks early beast sculptures but also to the strained
and frightened horse sculptures of Marini and Butler. Yet Bontecous
beasts exhibit a more indeterminate, oxymoronic presence by appearing
to be both hunted creatures and hunters. Interested in both form and formlessness,
Bontecou infused her early creations with the type of oscillating symbolism
that anticipates her next artistic move.
Back in New York, she
began to enlarge the metaphorical breadth of her work, favoring a more abstract
visual idiom that embraced the ambiguities of form and formlessness. Her
shift toward an equivocal abstraction was doubtless fueled in part by the
ascendancy of Abstract Expressionism. Bontecou recently commented that Abstract
gave young artists a burst of energy and a desire for
boundless freedom to break away individually and find new paths.4
1961. Welded steel, canvas, wire, and rope, 72.6 x 66 x 25.5 in.
strategies of her early 1960s works overtly reconsider the formal choice
between classical one-point perspective schemes and the all-over compositional
strategies favored by various Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist artists.
Her 1959 untitled welded steel and canvas assemblage, for example, with
its singular oculus, placed high on the picture plane, acknowledges the
high horizons of Cézannes late paintings and Picassos
and Braques early Cubist works. Likewise, the 1960 untitled assemblage
owned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery formally paraphrases one-point
perspective before giving it a roller-coaster spin. With its wide-to-thin
canvas strips moving toward an exaggerated and enlarged vanishing point,
whose central focus is reiterated with repeated arched forms, the composition
simultaneously mimics Raphaels School of Athens and Duchamps
Rotary Demispheres. Crossing High Renaissance Neo-Platonic
references with allusions to casino-inspired roulette wheels, Bontecou
compresses the implicit meanings of one-point perspective, deconstructing
the hallowed formal premises of Renaissance illusionism. Following Duchamp,
she also interjects sexual/industrial metaphors into her work, alluding
in one formthe black holeto various human and industrial passions.
As though that were not enough, she flips the classical illusion of receding
space inside out, constructing concavities that extend outward toward
the viewer. The interiors, in turn, which are usually painted a sooty
black, carry connotations of secreted individual dreams and cosmic oblivion.
Soot as a velvety black
marking medium appears in Bontecous assemblages and drawings as early
as 1962. The shock value of the material remains powerful even today, carrying
entropic associations with cinders and burned wreckage. Frustrating yet
fulfilling ingrained interests in spatial progressions, Bontecous
dark holes became one of the most powerful and disturbing aspects of her
work. While the art press of the 1960s predominately interpreted them as
destructive images associated with female sexual orifices, Bontecou continued
to insist that they were also eyes, as her works of the last 30 years seem
1966. Welded steel, canvas, epoxy, leather, wire, and light, 78
x 119 x 31 in.
A powerfully haunting
untitled anvil/skull/mollusk/eye sculpture from 1964 reigned over the
immense third room of the L.A. exhibition, its semi-sleeping, semi-waking
eye/abyss smoldering with a melancholy verging on despair. Despite its
relatively small size, it anchored the massive room, overcoming the power
generated by Bontecous bas-relief sculptures and related drawings.
Nearby, a suite of some six soot drawings profiling open, closed, and
semi-closed human, bestial, and industrial eyes was hung. The oculus in
the drawings shifts from being human in one to being animalistic or industrial
in others, resembling a telescope granting glimpses of the night sky,
a bullet slumbering in its shaft, or the eye-hole of an electric drill.
Industrial metaphors run rampant in the works created during 1964, ranging
from jet engine exhaust funnels, gas masks, and air ventilation grates
to the teeth of industrial zippers and gears.
One untitled combine
(1964) features gaping rubber gasket mouths set within patch-worked army
tarpaulins that are stamped periodically with the phrase FOREIGN REGISTER.
The pointed interjection of fragmentary words into this singular work reinforces
the intense play between reason and sensuality, between the bodys
upper and lower orifices. Equally high-brow and entropic are a pair of steel
rebar works, both untitled and dating to the mid-60s. Spray-painted
a cold white, they resemble upside-down faces. Here, barred mouth-like orifices
appear where eyes should be, and smaller eye-orifices appear in place of
human mouths. Disorientation in terms of direction and meaning predominates.
Since Bontecou often worked in her studio with a radio tuned to United Nations
reports on the global political scene, it is tempting to interpret these
works as social critiques of unfolding American political realities following
the assassination of JFK and the escalation of the Vietnam War.5 These works
unmistakably use the metaphors of formlessness and entropy as a visual idiom
to critique society. Like the slashes and holes in Fontanas paintings,
the abraded surfaces and holes in Burris canvases, or the gunshot
wounds in St. Phalles tire works, there are in Bontecous works
of this time dystopian interpretations of inherited artistic and social
premises that move beyond the early categorization of her intent as strictly
and singularly feminist. One of her staunchest champions, Donald Judd, suggested
that her works were about something as social as war
as private as sex, making one an aspect of the other.6
1961. Welded steel, canvas, wire, and velvet, 56 x 39 x 21.2 in.
In artistic terms,
Bontecous works also functioned as subversive replies to the sexual
machismo and self-expression endemic to the predominately male Abstract
Expressionists. On one hand, like Nevelson, Chamberlain, Rauschenberg,
and Johns, she chose to subvert the highly individualized idioms of Abstract
Expressionism by creating art from materials found in the studio and street.
Her artistic process also articulated a shift away from heroic, signature
gestures in favor of an obsessive, repetitive procedure that mimicked
old-fashioned processes inherent to building boats or knitting sweaters.
Close scrutiny of Bontecous 1960s combines reveals how she sutured
canvas scraps over welded steel armatures by stitching, securing, twisting,
and snipping brass wire threads at half-inch intervals. Ultimately lifting
the canvas off its classic flat plane to depths that measure as much as
three feet, she literally transformed the canvas into sculpture.
It is engaging to see
in retrospect how these works converse with those of other emerging artists
at the time, including Rauschenberg, Nevelson, and even Eva Hesse. Like
Rauschenbergs combines, which also cobbled together found and retrofitted
objects, Bontecous works merged the formerly distinct media of painting
and sculpture. The interest, even necessity, to construct work distinct
from the rectangle anticipates by several years Hesses important Hang
Up (1966). Challenging Romantic assumptions that art emerges from the mind
of an artistic genius, Bontecou and others of her time posited instead that
art emerges from the realities of shared repertoires of cultural knowledge
1993. Welded steel, porcelain, and wire, 8.5 x 9.75 x 7 in.
But there is also
no denying that part of the power of her assemblages stems from her mingling
of sex and war, which, though not new to art, took on a unique female
ferocity in her work. In touch with everyday reality, Bontecous
formal rhetoric was at least subliminally informed by changes in womens
everyday apparel. While alluding to the dressing and undressing of the
female body, these combines also metaphorically redress formal art historical
obsessions with perspectival illusion, suggesting that its historical
pretensions to furthering Aristotelian knowledge were but a disguise for
more primal, sexual interests.
But perhaps the most
salient aspect of Bontecous non-objective 1960s works is their ability
to generate and sustain multiple layers of interpretation, something Bontecou
turns away from in her works of later years. Early in the 1970s she began
to work with new materials, first exploring vacuum-formed plastics and later
porcelain. Although she maintained her signature fabrication methods, her
thematic interests in the intersection of nature and industrial culture
began to wane as she accelerated her study of nature. Her post-1970 works
continue to critique society but shift their emphasis from a conflation
of technology and the body to inquiries that probe the nature of seeing
(detail), 19902000. Welded steel, porcelain, copper, wire
mesh, silk, and wire, 75 x 78 x 72 in.
From 1970 come surprisingly
realistically rendered translucent plastic fish that have either swallowed
or are swallowing other fish. Then, in the 1980s eye-mobiles emerge, seemingly
drawing and redrawing circles in space. While these are usually singular,
Cyclops eyes, there is less of the sense of sexual formlessness about
the orbs. Linking seeing with such cosmic bodies as the sun and stars,
and by extension with light and reasoning, the late works return to a
more straightforward epistemological ground. Leaving the formlessness
of the dog-horse behind, Bontecou shifts back to the terra firma on which
the falcon-owl of the late 1950s stood. Coming full circle, her most recent
works embrace the eye as a primal metaphor for discovering and interpreting
a writer in the Los Angeles basin, guest curated Drawing the Line:
Contemporary Artists Reassess Traditional East Asian Calligraphy,
JuneOctober 2003 at the Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, California.
1 Georges Bataille,
Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 19271939 (Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. 31.
2 Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, Formless: A
Users Guide (New York: Zone Books, 1997).
3 Elizabeth A.T. Smith mentions Bontecous sojourn
in Italy in her essay All Freedom in Every Sense included
in the sumptuously illustrated exhibition catalogue: Elizabeth A.T. Smith
and Ann Philbin, Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective (Chicago/Los Angeles/New
York: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago & the Regents of the
University of California, in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003),
4 Lee Bontecou, statement in E-Releases 2003. Available
at <http://www.ereleases.com/pr/2003-bontecou.shtml>. Accessed September
5 Bontecous mention of the radio appears in Mona
Hadler, Lee Bontecous Worldscapes, Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective,
op. cit., p. 208.
6 Donald Judd, Lee Bontecou, Arts Magazine
April 1965: p. 20.