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.