March 15 – April 28, 2007
Brilliantly dark with an inherent sense of foreboding, Lee Bontecou’s work reveals itself through the unraveling of layered thoughts and textures without losing its unpredictability. The experience is akin to travel—a pastiche of impressions, some recognizably of the here and now, and others hinting at an imaginary future.
In Bontecou, we are suspended between realism and science fiction, part poem, part scientific inquiry, every detail ready to morph into omni-applicable symbols. Many of the works in this exceptional exhibition, date from the late 1960s and early 1970s, and were exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1971. They marked a radical departure from Bontecou’s acclaimed sculptural canvases, which she stretched over welded steel, as well as an end to her professional relationship with Castelli. In 1972 Bontecou left the gallery to avoid the constant pressure to produce and abandoned a public career. Throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, she preferred the privacy of her studio, focused on raising her daughter and teaching.
While these works were critically savaged at the time of their first showing, today at Knoedler, after decades of postmodernism, pluralism and feminism, it would stand to reason that our contemporary point of view would be decidedly different. As nightmarish as some details may be—fish with pirhana-sharp teeth and mutated flowers with gas mask-like heads, denizens of a Manichean universe where good and evil are locked in a cosmic struggle—the overall feeling is sheer elegance. There is a lightness of touch to Bontecou’s rhythmic fusion of transparent, vacuum-formed plastic shapes, which seem to defy the laws of gravity, and in the fine shading and treatment of volume in her drawings.
Although the crisp contours and smooth gradations of these drawings may seem reminiscent of academic rendering, Bontecou’s dramatic light and dark contrasts, in particular when using white pencils on black paper, are unmistakably contemporary. Like an X-ray of a tradition long gone, Bontecou’s work captures its subjects with a clarity reminiscent of Ernst Haeckel. One can trace a tenderness embedded in the making of these works, as the artist’s eye carefully studies her subject before improvising on its forms and divining the truth of its nature. Her creative process, while labor intensive, feels quite meditative; despite the savagery of her imagery, she establishes a paradoxical atmosphere of serenity.
It is interesting to note that Bontecou dated many of these drawings over a period of decades, such as “Untitled” (1970-2006) or “Untitled” (1969-2007), as if they rode along a continuum (or perhaps to underscore their timelessness?). The concerns expressed in her work—the vulnerability of nature to genetic mutations and extinction—are more pressing today than in the late 1960s. However, the threat of ultimate destruction, nuclear war, has become blurrier as more time passes since Hiroshima.
Born in 1931 in Providence, RI, Bontecou witnessed the devastations of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, albeit from a safe perspective, and as well as the 20th century’s numerous flirtations with irrevocable catastrophe. While the conceptual understanding of the various dangers of the world might not be that different between generations, the fear of them certainly is; for many of the young, they have become more of an intellectual abstraction. Bontecou’s work does not merely remind us of life’s fragility, it celebrates the tragic beauty this consciousness entails. Its mutations of natural forms are not careless or flippant, but embody true trepidation. It is not by chance that many of her creatures remind us of ancient life forms that have steeled themselves for unknown disaster. Like the fish that spend their lives tucked away in the darkest corners of the ocean, Bontecou has dreamt up survivors. Her organisms often seem armored against predators, and at times even indestructible. A sculpture like “Untitled (Pupa)” (1969), which seems to nurture a cocoon inside a translucent life chamber, holds nothing but mystery for those on the outside, be it enchanting or threatening. Nothing in Bontecou’s vocabulary is stagnant—everything moves through transformative stages in a constant state of becoming and evolving.
This sense of optimism, if we can trust it, might explain why, in recent years, Bontecou has returned to share her pursuits with a public audience. In her mid-seventies, she is as vibrant and accessible as any artist could hope to be.