For an artist embarking on a career during the height of Abstract Expressionism, the challenges were daunting. For a generation of young women artists, aiming to establish themselves in a male-dominated art world, the task was even more unnerving. Beginning in the late 1950s, Lee Bontecou rose to the challenges posed by her male contemporaries and created a completely new visual language. Based on the abstract idiom, she took their expressive forms, revolutionized them, and elevated them into a completely new space. Transforming the traditional definitions of art, her three-dimensional wall-reliefs occupied new ground and launched a legacy of pioneering women artists who used their own unique voices to flout convention.
Here, we present five female artists who continued the tradition of Bontecou. Illustrated with works from the 20th Century Evening Sale on 11 November 2021, the 21st Century Evening Sale on 9 November 2021, and the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale on 12 November 2021, we examine what made each of these artists so innovative.
Lee Bontecou: an exploration into the void
Reacting against her forbearers, Bontecou sought to disrupt the sanctity of the flat canvas by taking it off the wall, dissecting it, reassembling the fabric over a metal armature, and securing it with wire and glue. This unique form of construction allowed for the realisation of a series of mysterious voids; dark interior spaces lined with black velvet that absorbed the light that enters and allows nothing out.
Untitled was executed at the height of the Cold War, but these forms were prompted more by the artist’s interest in the vast expanses of outer space, and what would eventually become known as black holes. Bontecou wanted her voids to evoke feelings of mystery and wonder, and a sense of the sublime.
By welding her metal frames, Bontecou was also able to create larger sculptures, allowing them to be lifted off the floor and placed on the wall, further liberating her radically new form of wall-mounted sculpture from its historical conventions. Cutting the canvas into pieces, and then reassembling it over the armature, allowed her to manipulate the break the flatness of traditional canvas, while also retaining a painterly sense of illusion and depth.
Marisol Escobar: building blocks of portraiture
While Bontecou was launching her three-dimensional forms, Marisol, was re-invigorating the sculptural canon by imbuing it with the excitement and energy of Pop Art. Influenced by contemporaries such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Marisol declared that she liked to make ‘combinations that seem incongruous’.
Her totemic wood sculptures were often comprised of roughly hewn wood blocks, into which she would carve the faces, hands, and feet of people she knew, or other art-world figures. She would then introduce found objects, such as umbrellas, shoes, or items of furniture to complete the composition.
Part-painting, part-sculpture, her work is often associated with Pop Art, but it also contains sophisticated and complex allusions to ongoing social concerns such as issues of dominance and power between races and genders. Her oeuvre changed dramatically throughout her career, but one theme was constant: a strong focus on humanity, human welfare, values, and dignity.
Lynda Benglis: ‘the frozen gesture’
In her work, Lynda Benglis blurred the lines between painting and sculpture to interrogate the supremacy of the gesture — a key factor in the mythology of Abstract Expressionism. Beginning with her ‘pours’, she pursued her interest in what she called ‘the frozen gesture’. Her fabric knots and folds, wall-based sculptures which challenged the machismo of gesture-based painting, mimicked a traditionally female medium, fabric, and transformed it into bold and powerful forms.
Kara Walker: the cutting edge of history
Like Bontecou, Kara Walker was absorbing what she saw going on outside her studio window into her unique visual aesthetic. Prompted by the rise of the social justice movement, Walker turned to history to address some of its darkest moments. Her monochromatic cut-outs evoke the poetic antebellum silhouettes that were a popular form of portraiture in the 19th century, yet detailed looking reveals the racism and sexual violence that underpinned much of the faux gentility for which the period is best known.
Unlike Bontecou or Marisol, both of whom developed existing artistic genres into new forms, Walker resurrected an almost lost art form and placed it on the wall, the hallowed realm of painting. Writing on the occasion of her 2007 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, curators Yasmil Raymond and Rachel Hooper commented: ‘Walker manipulates her literary source to retell a story we thought we knew, thereby revealing the traps of representation.’ By cloaking the sinister truths of the period in figures that evoke antebellum-era decorum, she exposes the inherent distortion of truth that underlies most historical accounts of our shared American experience.
Walker’s images are all the more striking because the scenes of violation are not immediately apparent with a rudimentary glance. The artist subsumes these shocking narratives in the poetic and romantic associations conjured but the black-and-white cut-out forms — their shocking truth is only revealed upon close and extended examination. Walker uses history to dig deep into the American subconscious, into their literature, art, music, and the stories handed down through the generations, to reveal a fuller more complete truth that art history has not told. The fact that she co-opts, and rejuvenates, a traditional technique to do so, makes it more powerful.
Issy Wood: the legacy continues
The legacy of Bontecou’s innovative use of materials can be found in the work of the contemporary musician and artist Issy Wood, who — like Bontecou — used velvet as an integral part of her work. During her studies at the Royal Academy Schools in London, Wood would regularly scan auction catalogues, marvelling at their glossy, stylish presentation of historic works of art that were coming up for public sale, only to disappear again from public view after being sold to a private collector. She also found this phenomenon common in social media too, where possessions, things, and people appear and disappear as we swipe our way through life. Whereas Bontecou uses velvet for its physical properties of absorbing light, by championing materials such as velvet into her work, Wood seeks to parody the associations with luxury, transforming everyday objects into surreal visions, and their surfaces mercurial and alien.