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Lee Bontecou (b. 1931)
signed and dated 'Bontecou 60' (lower right)
canvas, welded steel and wire
27 1/4 x 29 1/2 x 7 in. (69.2 x 74.9 x 17.8 cm.)
Executed in 1960.
Makler Gallery, Philadelphia
Private Collection, Pennsylvania
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia Collects 20th Century, October-November 1963, p. 9 (illustrated).

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Joanna Szymkowiak
Joanna Szymkowiak

Lot Essay

With its heavily textured surfaces, employment of found materials, handcrafted-quality, and mysterious dark voids at its center, Untitled, an early example from Lee Bontecou’s signature body of wall-mounted pieces, evokes words like “formidable,” “charged,” “forceful,” “dazzling” and “fierce.” This wall-mounted relief projects forward into the space of the viewer, defining an encounter laden with psychological intensity. Two dark, ovoid apertures dominate the pictorial space, extending beyond the surface of the work and surprising the viewer by reversing the illusion of space as classically and conventionally portrayed in art works. Bontecou meant these dark voids, an immediately recognizable motif of hers, to conjure feelings of wonder and the sublime in the viewer. The artist was fascinated by the technological and scientific advances—notably the explorations of the cosmos—of the Sputnik-era of the late 1950s and early 1960s in which these early mature works were created, and the inclusion of the dark voids are meant to evoke the sublime immensity of space, just beginning to be explored as Bontecou was starting this phase of her career. Emotionally, Untitled carries a double charge: expressing wonder at the capabilities of technology, but also reflecting the aura of fear, anxiety and violence that clouded the world during the Cold War period.

Perhaps none of her diverse and spectacular body of sculptural works are more stunning than ones that Bontecou began creating in the late 1950s and that served to establish her reputation: a series of wall-mounted pieces constructed of welded steel frameworks across which she stretched roughly-textured and irregular scraps of salvaged canvas material such as laundry bags and conveyor belts, of which the present piece is an outstanding example. “Her artistic process…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”(C. Chattopadhyay, Sculpture, March 2004, Vol. 23, No. 2).
Throughout her long, multi-decade career Lee Bontecou has created powerful and original works that merge and blur the boundaries between sculpture and painting (as these art genres are traditionally understood). In doing so, she has been instrumental in defining a radically new approach to constructing the sculptural form. “Bontecou’s sculptures (of the early 1960s) stunned the New York City art world. Among the gallery owners who made their way to her studio was Leo Castelli, who had helped make stars of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Castelli put her in a group show in May 1960 and gave her a solo show the following November” (P. Trachtman, Lee Bontecou’s Brave New World,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 2004).
One of Lee Bontecou’s great contributions during the 1960s was to help to get sculpture off the floor and away from the wall. “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 (Eva) 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” (C. Chattopadhyay, Sculpture, March 2004, Vol. 23, No. 2). Like several others of her artist contemporaries (Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson, and John Chamberlain, to name a few) she created an assemblage-based art that defined new possibilities and a new look for sculpture and redefined the meaning of artist: that art emerges not from isolated genius but rather from a shared repository of experience and knowledge.

Compositionally, her early-career wall reliefs of the era of the current work recall the cubist collages of Picasso and Braque, while also suggesting the influence of the all-over compositional approaches of the Abstract Expressionists. Drawing has been central to her work, “drawing” with metal, “drawing” in air. Lee Bontecou was one of the few women artists to receive major recognition in the male-dominated art world of the 1960s. Her work explores the surprise, the fear, the wonder, the horror and the sublime to be found both in the world of technology and in the natural world as well. Maintaining an active and robust art practice throughout her career, she returned to widespread public recognition in 2003 with a major retrospective co-organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Her work has been included in major exhibitions both in the United States and internationally, including at the Whitney Museum of American Art and at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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