Walking through the retrospective exhibition of Lee Bontecou, on view at MoMA-Queens, is uncannily like visiting an out-of-the-way museum of natural history, as if her entire work to date had been dedicated to the creation of a single work of installation art: a musée imaginaire. It begins with some animal sculptures and continues through what look like scientific instruments–cameras and other devices for the observation and recording of nature. These evolve into larger and larger structures, made of wire armatures covered with scraps of used fabric, each with one or two dark holes; like tribal masks, they convey an air of menace and mystery. One could construct a speculative anthropology for these extraordinary structures–what they mean, and how they function. We could imagine an entire culture, a cargo cult, as it were, dedicated to their fabrication out of salvaged metal and found cloth. Next, one passes vitrines displaying translucent flora, or perhaps insects or even enlarged marine creatures midway between animalcules and vegetation. Then, suddenly, one encounters forms that are immediately recognized as fish, with spiky fins, goggle eyes and dangerous teeth, which evoke corresponding features in what, for want of a better term, I have been calling masks. There are some drawings, quite beautiful, of flowers or flowerlike forms, and of fish. A large fish, seemingly clad with natural armor, is suspended from the ceiling. Now we encounter some mollusklike shapes on pedestals, some drawings of waves, reminiscent of exquisite drawings of waves by Leonardo. In the final galleries are models for visionary spacecraft, with propellers and sails–or they could be large models of mosquitolike bugs–and then some suspended galaxies, imaginary planetary systems of exceptional delicacy containing bodies that have the appearance of eyeballs. And there are sheets on which eyes–human, animal, bird, insect, fish–are finely drawn. Taken as a whole, the installation is like a cabinet of wonders.
Bontecou is 73, and the show provides a chronological survey of nearly half a century of artistic production. Since she has not exhibited in New York for more than thirty years, the exhibition also offers an answer to a question not infrequently asked in the art world: Whatever happened to Lee Bontecou? Her considerable reputation rests on the large metal-and-fabric objects first shown in Leo Castelli’s gallery in 1960. These seemed to belong with the most advanced art of the era, and at the same time to carry an aura of scary otherness. In a critical essay published in 1965, Donald Judd paid tribute to both aspects of these works. “Lee Bontecou was one of the first to use a three-dimensional form that was neither painting nor sculpture,” he wrote, giving her credit for overcoming the sharp division between different media that critics like Clement Greenberg had insisted upon, in favor of what Judd designated as “specific objects.” But Judd went on to say, “The image cannot be contemplated; it has to be dealt with as an object, at least viewed with puzzlement and wariness, as would be any strange object, and at most seen with terror, as would be a beached mine or a well hidden in the grass. The image extends from something as social as war to something as private as sex, making one an aspect of the other.” Bontecou’s objects lent themselves to the most rarefied speculations on the ontology of the artwork, and at the same time confronted the viewer with something almost frighteningly aggressive, like the effigies of protective monsters guarding sacred sites. Nothing like that had existed, as austere as geometry and as terrifying as Minotaurs.
Though her pieces are three-dimensional, they are all frontal and are intended to hang at eye level. And each is organized around an orifice, rather than simply a hole, which has a depth and blackness. The menace of the pieces is conveyed by this opening. Bontecou interestingly refers to the mouth in the celebrated Bocca della Verità–“the Mouth of Truth”–which she must have gotten to know while a Fulbright scholar in Rome in the late 1950s. It is a large circular carving of a bearded face with an open mouth from ancient Roman times, now part of the facade of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The face has other openings–eyes and nostrils–and is said to have been a sewer cover in ancient Rome. The legend is that if one tells a lie and then puts one’s hand into the “Mouth of Truth,” it will be bitten off. The defining orifices of Bontecou’s work imply the sudden violence of a stone mouth. Or it could be the empty eye-socket of a cyclopean presence that still manages to hold us in its baleful stare. It signals the vaginal opening to many and, when fitted with points or industrial zippers, one or another mode of female fearfulness to others. Whatever interpretation one draws, it has the primordial fascination of a dark opening into an alien interior, which we penetrate at our own risk.
The metal armature is designed with reference to the opening. In a typical piece, there are concentric metal rings around the opening, with rods radiating further back from the opening, like rays. In a way, one could think of the metal pieces as mullions in a stained-glass structure, with the spaces filled in with fitted scraps of fabric rather than glass. The fabric patches, in various shades of brown or tan, are held in place with twists of wire. In photographs they look like pieces of intarsia–those works made of pieces of shaped and colored wood that became a genre of art in the Renaissance, esteemed as highly as painting because of the geometrical knowledge that went into their design as well as the woodworker’s skills. (There is an entire room made of intarsia at the Metropolitan Museum–the Studiolo of the Ducal Palace in Gubbio.) Bontecou’s geometry is intuitive and irregular, of course, and the objects more abstract. She fits into the surface found objects that augment their threat– saw blades, metal cages, industrial zippers–and often auxiliary openings. They are works of inspired bricolage, to borrow the word used by Claude Lévi-Strauss to characterize the logic of primitive thought. But everything is calculated to emphasize the opening, which grips the fascinated viewer like a potential victim.
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.
In the Artist’s Statement with which the catalogue properly begins, Bontecou writes:
Since my early years until now, the natural world and its visual wonders and horrors–man-made devices with their mind-boggling engineering feats and destructive abominations, elusive human nature and its multiple ramifications from the sublime to unbelievable abhorrences–to me are all one.
And she adds: “We were all lucky to be working in art at such an exciting time of exploration.” The 1960s made her possible without in any serious way accounting for what she achieved. From what I can tell, Bontecou abandoned the kinds of objects with which she will always be identified before she abandoned the art world itself–gave up making these “destructive abominations” and “unbelievable abhorrences”–in favor of objects of transparent fragility, evoking the wonders of the natural world. There is certainly the kind of continuity with the early work that justifies her saying that “it is all one” to her. She still uses welded armatures, to which pieces of fabric are fastened with twisted wire. There is always the acid taste of edginess. But the fearsomeness has more or less vanished or been naturalized, as in the armored fish she makes. Had she done everything in the show except those early objects of otherworldly monstrosity, she would certainly have been a wonderful artist. But would anyone have wondered whatever happened to her had she stopped showing them, even if she continued to make more of them for her own sake or theirs?