LEE BONTECOU (b. 1931)
LEE BONTECOU (b. 1931)
LEE BONTECOU (b. 1931)
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LEE BONTECOU (b. 1931)
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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection
LEE BONTECOU (1931-2022)


LEE BONTECOU (1931-2022)
signed and dated 'L. Bontecou 1963' (on the reverse)
graphite and soot on muslin
34 x 37 in. (86.3 x 94 cm.)
Executed in 1963.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Wilder Green, New York
Private collection
Private collection, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2009
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Members Collect: Art Lending Service Retrospective Exhibition, March-May 1967.
New York, The American Federation of Arts, American Master Drawings and Watercolors, September 1976-April 1977, no. 76-1.

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Lot Essay

Executed in 1963, Untitled is a captivating example of Lee Bontecou’s graphic work: an important strand of her practice no less radical than her renowned sculptural reliefs. By turning off the oxygen on an oxyacetylene blowtorch—producing instead an acetylene flame, which burns at a lower temperature and deposits a layer of soot—Bontecou was able “draw” in a fine spray of pure carbon. This technique, which the artist discovered while on a Fulbright scholarship to Rome between 1957 and 1958, allowed her to create vaporous, airbrush-like effects, ranging from deep blacks to subtle nuances of grey. She would also use blades, brushes and her fingers to blur or scrape away the soot, producing gleams, ghostly erasures and facets of light. Here, on an expanse of muslin almost one meter across, she presents a biomechanical form with three dark voids at its center. Vertical and horizontal beams shine out from these apertures, which are ringed concentrically and socketed in a ribbed, metallic crossbar. A rounder surface, creased like a taut balloon and with vents at its top and bottom, radiates out from behind them. These elements combine to form an ambiguous, compelling and complex presence, conjuring all the uncertainty and optimism of the machine age.

When Bontecou joined Leo Castelli’s New York gallery in 1960, she was the only female artist on the roster. Her debut exhibition there that year attracted instant acclaim. The Minimalist artist and critic Donald Judd marveled at the power of Bontecou’s swelling, metal-ribbed canvas constructions—somewhere between sculpture and painting—which projected from the wall “like contoured volcanoes.” Reviewing her second show with Castelli in 1963, he declared that “Bontecou is one of the best artists working anywhere.” Many of the reliefs centered around dark, velvet-backed abysses, which Judd observed were “seemingly capable of firing and swallowing” (D. Judd, “In the Galleries”, December 1960 and January 1963, in Donald Judd: The Complete Writings 1959-1975, New York 2005, pp. 27, 65). Such uneasy polarities abound in Bontecou’s works, which often appear like sections of alien spacecraft. By turns organic and technological, ancient and futuristic, buoyant and ominous, they were driven by a sharp alertness to the social, scientific and aesthetic currents of her time.

Growing up in the shadow of the Second World War, Bontecou was keenly aware of the relationship between technology and conflict. Her parents both worked in the war effort, her mother wiring transmitters for submarines and her father building gliders for the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation (he also co-designed the first aluminum canoe). Bontecou would later recall her horror at seeing news images of Holocaust survivors, her outrage at the outbreak of the Korean War in 1953, and the impact of the Cold War’s nuclear tensions on her work. She was also fascinated, however, by the splendor of modern engineering and the soaring ambition of the Space Race. She viewed mechanical form through the lens of nature, noting the study of sharks and dolphins by submarine designers, and the similarities between the Sputnik satellite and a dragonfly. She learned to weld in 1954, when she spent the summer at Maine’s Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. In 1957-58, living in a Roman terracotta factory during her Fulbright scholarship, she made fanciful, semi-abstract earthenware birds which would go on to inform her metal-framed assemblages. Back in New York, she spent hours plane-watching at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and built model airplanes from kits in her studio.

All of these influences can be felt in the present work, whose forms are variously evocative of jet engine, gun-barrel, insect carapace, puckered canvas and streamlined fuselage. Its volumetric shapes, fantastical structure and sense of speed might equally be seen to recall the mechanistic “tubism” of Fernand Léger, the Surrealists’ dreamlike objects and dynamic Futurist painting. Bontecou’s idiom, however, is unmistakably and uniquely her own. Significantly, the triple void echoes the structure of her monumental commission for the Lincoln Center, which was unveiled in 1964 and remains on view today in the David H. Koch Theater. More than twenty feet across, the winged and strutted relief incorporates a real Plexiglas turret from a Second World War bomber aircraft. Like other soot-on-muslin works of 1963, including a circular example in the collection of the Princeton University Art Museum, the present work appears to relate directly to this large-scale masterpiece.

At the height of her fame, Bontecou held her final exhibition at Castelli Gallery in 1971. The translucent, vacuum-formed plastic sculptures of fish and flowers surprised critics in their seeming departure from her more abstract work. Growing tired of life in New York City, she moved with her husband to rural Pennsylvania a few years later, continuing to quietly make art and to teach at Brooklyn College for the next two decades. In 2003, a retrospective organized by the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and later shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, revealed a coherent oeuvre across more than forty years of art-making. Nearly all painstakingly handmade, Bontecou’s works are threaded together by technological, biological and political themes, and a sensitive engagement with the changing modern world. Amid this diverse and original practice, the soot drawings retained a foundational importance. Their potent blackness—the mysterious, compelling void around which so many of her compositions orbited—had ignited her artistic imagination. “… I got a beautiful black line”, she recalled of the blowtorch technique. “I started making huge soot drawings. I finally got that dark that I wanted, the black I wanted. And a kind of landscape, or a worldscape .... It just opened up a new thought” (L. Bontecou, lecture at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Summer 1988, The Skowhegan Lecture Archive, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York).

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