untitled (detail), c. 1980–1998. Welded steel, porcelain, wire mesh, canvas, and wire, 7 x 8 x 6 ft.

The Uncanny Eye: Lee Bontecou

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 Bontecou’s long-awaited retrospective, which opened at the UCLA Hammer Museum and travels to Chicago’s 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 Castelli’s gallery) her rightful place in art history alongside male peers such as John Chamberlain, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. To Bontecou’s credit, the exhibited works stand up to the din of speculation that commenced with the show’s 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 Bontecou’s 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.

untitled, 1957. Bronze, 27 x 12 x 57 in.

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 Bontecou’s 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.

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 animal’s 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

untitled, 1964. Welded steel, canvas, epoxy, and wire, 9 x 27 x 14 in.

The significant difference between the falcon-owl and the dog-horse lies in the nature of their hollowed eye-voids. The bird’s eyes link to canonical art historical interests in form and content. By contrast, the dog-horse beast’s 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 “L’Informe: Mode d’emploi,” which was curated by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss.2

While Bontecou’s 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 Bontecou’s emerging visual vocabulary, fueling her predilection for dystopian visions. Her early animal sculptures relate not only to Chadwick’s early beast sculptures but also to the strained and frightened horse sculptures of Marini and Butler. Yet Bontecou’s 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.

untitled, 1961. Welded steel, canvas, wire, and rope, 72.6 x 66 x 25.5 in.

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 Expressionism…gave young artists a burst of energy and a desire for boundless freedom to break away individually and find new paths.”4

The compositional 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 Cézanne’s late paintings and Picasso’s and Braque’s 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 Raphael’s School of Athens and Duchamp’s “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 form—the black hole—to 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.

untitled, 1966. Welded steel, canvas, epoxy, leather, wire, and light, 78 x 119 x 31 in.

Soot as a velvety black marking medium appears in Bontecou’s 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, Bontecou’s 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 to maintain.

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 Bontecou’s 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.

untitled, 1961. Welded steel, canvas, wire, and velvet, 56 x 39 x 21.2 in.

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 body’s 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 Fontana’s paintings, the abraded surfaces and holes in Burri’s canvases, or the gunshot wounds in St. Phalle’s tire works, there are in Bontecou’s 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…[and] something as private as sex, making one an aspect of the other.”6

In artistic terms, Bontecou’s 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 Bontecou’s 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.

untitled, 1993. Welded steel, porcelain, and wire, 8.5 x 9.75 x 7 in

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 Rauschenberg’s combines, which also cobbled together found and retrofitted objects, Bontecou’s 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 Hesse’s 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 and experience.

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, Bontecou’s formal rhetoric was at least subliminally informed by changes in women’s 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.

untitled (detail), 1990–2000. Welded steel, porcelain, copper, wire mesh, silk, and wire, 75 x 78 x 72 in.

But perhaps the most salient aspect of Bontecou’s 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 and perception.

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 life.

Collette Chattopadhyay, a writer in the Los Angeles basin, guest curated “Drawing the Line: Contemporary Artists Reassess Traditional East Asian Calligraphy,” June–October 2003 at the Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, California.

1 Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. 31.
2 Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide (New York: Zone Books, 1997).
3 Elizabeth A.T. Smith mentions Bontecou’s 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), p. 171.
4 Lee Bontecou, statement in E-Releases 2003. Available at <http://www.ereleases.com/pr/2003-bontecou.shtml>. Accessed September 25, 2003.
5 Bontecou’s mention of the radio appears in Mona Hadler, “Lee Bontecou’s Worldscapes,” Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective, op. cit., p. 208.
6 Donald Judd, “Lee Bontecou,” Arts Magazine April 1965: p. 20.