A Tribe Called Quest
That the creator of such work was a slight young woman with a Joan-of-Arc haircut may have contributed to the tremendous acclaim it enjoyed in the 1960s. Back then, the photographs of Bontecou standing next to her fierce creations nearly made her an icon. One still sees pieces from that period in collections of twentieth-century American art, and there is a very large piece in the State Theater at Lincoln Center, commissioned by the architect Philip Johnson. But as the years passed without showings of new work, the question of what happened to so striking an artist could not but arise. Two enterprising curators--Elizabeth Smith of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art and Ann Philbin of the UCLA Hammer Museum--set out to solve the mystery. They discovered Bontecou in rural Pennsylvania, where, after teaching art at Brooklyn College, she had retired into a life of quiet obscurity. Yet Bontecou hadn't stopped making art. She had simply withdrawn from an art world somewhat demoralizingly encapsulated in the banner of a recent print by Barbara Kruger: "Another artist/Another exhibition/Another gallery/Another magazine/Another review/Another career/Another life," blazoned across the image of a growling leopard with Bontecou-style fangs. Plenty of artists vanish from the art world, some more willingly than others. But leaving it without fanfare, at the height of one's powers and reputation, as Bontecou did--just slipping away--had no precedent. Duchamp pretended to have given up art in favor of chess for twenty-five years, though he never entirely exited the scene and was secretly working on his enigmatic masterpiece, Étant données. I suppose the closest parallel would be J.D. Salinger, who turned his back on a success that any writer might envy for the reclusive existence of a literary hermit. Fortunately, Bontecou consented to the idea of a full retrospective of her work, which ends its tour at MoMA-Queens on September 27.
Taken all together, Bontecou's oeuvre is like that of no other artist I know. There is a distant affinity with the engravings that illustrate a famous book of 1665--Robert Hooke's Micrographia. Hooke was curator of experiments at the Royal Society of London, with the boundless curiosity of a seventeenth-century natural philosopher--interested in flight and the design of clocks and, as he belonged to the first generation of microscopists, in revealing the minute structures of things up to then invisible or barely visible. Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses is the book's subtitle. With the aid of the recently invented microscope, Hooke examined the structure of feathers, the stinger of bees, the "tongue" of mollusks and the feet and mandibles of insects. He coined the word "cell" and speculated on cellular function in plants. Hooke's text is accompanied by a series of extraordinary engravings, said to be by the architect Christopher Wren, that vividly illustrate the writer's observations, especially those of familiar insects (the flea, the fly, the ant, the gnat, the wood louse), creatures that would be terrifying if they shared our scale. Greatly magnified by Hooke's lenses, the insects are as mysterious and as menacing as Bontecou's wire-and-fabric structures, built around black holes. Hooke's wood louse is shown erect, holding a single hair like a spear in one of its six arms. It looks like a heavily armed warrior, with a horned helmet and a vicious forked tail. Hooke's flea is a creature as ornamental and intimidating as a warhorse in Nuremberg armor--or a futuristic war vehicle, the mere sight of which, if we could imagine a company of them in a science-fiction movie, enhanced through special effects, would cause an audience to scream. Bontecou's structures, executed in the early 1960s, lie at the intersection of magnified insects, battle masks and armored chariots, with the hole at once an aperture for looking through and a port for delivering missiles. It somehow diminishes them to call them sculptures.
Where do Bontecou's pieces stand in relation to the discourses that defined the art world of the 1960s? It was hard to say then, and it's no easier today. The originality and visceral force of Bontecou's work led many of her contemporaries--Judd, for instance--to try to assimilate it to their vision of what art should be. But, as we saw, Judd was sensitive to aspects of her work that had little to do with the philosophical project of redefining the art object; hence his untypical reference to terror, war and sex. "She emerged too late for abstract expressionism," Donna De Salvo writes in her catalogue essay, "and too early for pop art or minimalism, raising a question that has followed throughout her career: where does her work belong?" In his contribution Robert Storr links her with European artists like Alberto Burri (whose works were made of burlap sacking) and Lucio Fontana (best known for his slashed canvases), without really suggesting that these affinities have much by way of explanatory power. There is always a curatorial impulse to absorb art into the narratives of art history. The immense advantage of seeing those works of the 1960s in the retrospective context of what preceded them and what she went on to do is that it demonstrates that Bontecou was in no primary way in dialogue with her contemporaries. One feels that she was somehow in touch with the background violence of the decade, far more so than any of the movements that constitute its art history, which was caught up with the question of defining art and achieving aesthetic purity. If she has a peer in that period, it would be Eva Hesse, another maverick sculptor, who died at more or less the same time that Bontecou left the scene. Both of them were eccentric originals, portending the radical pluralism that overtook the art world in the next generation.