6.20.2010

Motherlode: Lee Bontecou at MoMA

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View of the exhibition, All Freedom in Every Sense, when you round the corner from the elevator
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I’ve always found Lee Bontecou’s work kind of scary, especially the gaping maws, all black and mysterious. But from the moment I saw those wall-mounted works several decades back, I respected them for their power and originality. And the Frankensteinian construction—a canvas skin stitched to an armature with wire—suggests that the sculptor virtually willed these monstrous things to life. There is nothing else like them. Name your association: cavernous, predatory, volcanic, cosmic or extraterrestrial. I still don’t stand with my back to them; you never know.

Bontecou had given up an active exhibition schedule by the time I learned of her in the Seventies. Feminist artists and art historians then were producing surveys of women artists for exhibition and publication, and that’s where I first saw her work, so this retrospective is a welcome opportunity to see more by a major sculptor who has had a fairly under-the-radar career.

The open gallery on the second floor of MoMA is an odd place for any show. It’s a bit like the kids’ table at Thanksgiving dinner, not quite as important (as the other galleries in the museum). On the other hand, its openness offers an immediacy that few other MoMA spaces have. I think it just might be the best place for Bontecou’s show, which remains up through August 30

The central space is dominated by a shimmery, pointy, light-in-weight sculpture that is suspended over a white plinth on the floor. It appears to float, and the movement of visitors makes the sculpture dance. Certainly the plinth was set up to catch its constantly changing shadow. It seems—how do I say this?—too lightweight to have been made by the same sculptor who created those imposing beasts that protrude from the surrounding walls. But there is a sense of ominousness about it, like a poison blowfish or a galaxy out of control, and the more I look at it, the less I don’t like it. How’s that for backhanded praise?


Facing back to the open entrance: Untitled, 1980-98; welded steel, porcelain, wire mesh, canvas, wire and grommets
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Continuing clockwise from above: the hanging sculpture, with a wall-mounted Untitled and drawings on the far wall
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Walking around the perimeter, you see the heart-stopping big works—which Bontecou made when she was in her late 20s to early 30s—as well as several groups of precursor drawings with the same central mouth/eye/volcanic crater. Bontecou learned that if she cut the amount of oxygen in her oxy/acetylene torch, she’d be able to produce a sooty black, the result of unburned fuel, which she scraped and smudged. I loved knowing that she painted with her torch, and that she made her sculptures sort of in the same way basketmakers made baskets, placing material over an armature and then twisting it together with bits of stuff, in this case copper or (maybe) zinc wire.
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Untitled, 1959; welded steel, canvas, black fabric, soot, wire; app 58 x 58 x 17 inches (The out-of-true proportion is not the camera; it's the work)
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Details, above and below, of Untitled, 1959

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Installation showing a selecton of drawings
See them up close, and with information, on the
MoMA website
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Continuing clockwise around the gallery, we come to the back wall (the light seeping from behind the wall is coming from the windows that face the courtyard)
Both images shown in full below:
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Another Untitled, c. 1958, soot on paperboard, 30 x 40 inches
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Here's the info from the MoMA website:
In 1958, after discovering that her welding torch expelled soot when she turned its oxygen levels down, Bontecou set out to "harness the black," as she put it. Here she scraped off areas of soot with a razor blade, creating a labyrinth of narrow rectangles and tunnel-like corridors. She used her fingers to soften edges in some areas and applied tape to create crisp curves in others. The small, soot-filled ovals that punctuate the drawing are precursors to the gaping black cavities that dominate the steel-and-canvas sculptures Bontecou began making roughly a year later in New York
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And another Untitled, this from 1963: soot and aniline dye on muslin
Given the date, this drawing was created after Bontecou had begun the sculptures
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The sculpture you were waiting for: Untitled, 1961, welded steel, canvas, black fabric, rawhide, copper wire, soot; 6' 8.25" x 7' 5" x 34.75"
If you'e visited MoMA you've seen this work in the collection
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Above and below: side and frontal views
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Here's the info from the MoMA website:
When Bontecou first exhibited her steel-and-canvas sculptures, many praised their aggressive, ominous qualities. Fellow artist Joseph Cornell described their gaping black cavities as summoning "the terror of the yawning mouths of cannons, of violent craters, of windows opened to receive your flight without return, and the jaws of the great beasts."
The year Bontecou made this work was marked by intense anxiety: the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba failed, the U.S. committed its first troops to Vietnam, and the construction of the Berlin Wall began. Although Bontecou rarely comments on her art, in a statement that accompanied a 1963 MoMA exhibition featuring this work, she wrote, "My concern is to build things that express our relation to this country—to other countries—to this world—to other worlds—to glimpse some of the fear, hope, ugliness, beauty and mystery that exists in us all and which hangs over all the young people today."
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Construction details above and below

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Bontecou is a contemporary of Jackie Winsor, who also made intensively hands-on, almost craft-based sculptures, though very different in concept; and of Frank Stella, who took years to catch up to her quirky construction; and I see her influence in contemporary sculptors like Anish Kapoor, especially the infinte void.
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This strong show is where legend comes smack up against reality. Go see it. And look closely at everything. You won’t be disappointed.
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See exhibition information on the MoMA website, including images of her works on paper, which I couldn't shoot because of the glass.
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7 comments:

Richard Bottwin said...

Thanks for that account of the show. It was great!

Jeffrey W. Bussmann said...

Gorgeous. I must catch this exhibition!

zackofalltrades said...

I think the Untitled, 1959 used to hang in the new school lobby, in say 1988 ... we would occasionally pitch pennies into it as we came off the escalator.

the horror !!! the horror !!! ;-)

Nancy Natale said...

Thank you for this, Joanne. I love Lee B's work and I'm not afraid. Really, I'm not afraid.

Rafael Damast said...

Thanks Joanne,
Great review. I was intrigued by Bentecou after I saw her wall sculpture in the Whitney. I am looking forward to seeing her show when I get back to NYC. Cheers!

Chris Ashley said...

All I want to say is that I greatly appreciate these posts on recent exhibitions, the artists they focus on, and your photos and commentary. Very good stuff. Thanks, Joanne. Cheers!

Debra Ramsay said...

I had an extended conversation with Veronica Roberts, the curator of this exhibition...the hanging piece was what motivated her to put this show together. The plinth underneath, that you mentioned, was put there to protect the piece, giving viewers notice that they were coming too close...the shadows were a "happy accident".
Agreed that it's a great show. The blackness of the soot has to be seen to be appreciated. It's so much more than "just" a color.