LEE BONTECOU (1931-2022)
LEE BONTECOU (1931-2022)
LEE BONTECOU (1931-2022)
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LEE BONTECOU (1931-2022)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Masterpieces from the S.I. Newhouse Collection
LEE BONTECOU (1931-2022)


LEE BONTECOU (1931-2022)
welded steel, canvas, fabric, velvet and wire
38 1/2 x 30 5/8 x 10 5/8 in. (97.8 x 77.8 x 27 cm.)
Executed in 1959-1960
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York.
Vera G. List, Greenwich (1960);
Sotheby's, New York, 12 November 2003, lot 1.
Gagosian Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 2003.
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Lee Bontecou, November-December 1960.
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Americans 1963, May-August 1963, p. 15 (illustrated).
New York, New School Art Center, Sculpture from the Albert A. List Family Collection, October-November 1965, no. 13.
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Seven Decades, 1895-1965: Crosscurrents in American Art, April-May 1966, p. 177, no. 344 (illustrated).
Leverkusen, Stadtisches Museum Schloss Morsbroich and Berlin, Kunstverein Haus am Waldsee, Lee Bontecou, March-July 1968, no. 4 (illustrated).
Providence, Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Governor's Arts Awards, June-July 1970, no. 1 (illustrated).
Ridgefield, Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Fall 1977: Contemporary Collectors, September-December 1977, n.p. (illustrated).
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Lee Bontecou, October-November 1999.
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

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Max Carter Vice Chairman, 20th and 21st Century Art, Americas

Lot Essay

Utterly enticing, yet elegant in its inaccessibility, Lee Bontecou’s Untitled (1959-1960) treads the fragile line between painting and sculpture, human and machine, fine art and craft, knowing and oblivion. Surrounded by the artist’s signature metal frame, delicate canvas fragments stretch over an unseen wire armature, which the artist carefully sutured into place. Three voids open onto velvety darkness, while yawning linear gulfs punctuate the remaining flatness, blurring the distinction between two-dimensional picture and multi-dimensional object. Clustered spyholes invite looking, their intrigue heightened by Bontecou’s rare use of regal crimson and glinting white as background, yet, as with all the other orifices, summarily deny sight of anything behind the structure itself. For upon approaching the daunting, enchanted apparition, any aspiration to deduce the beyond so heavily implied by its convexity quickly evaporates, met instead with all-encompassing, ever-impenetrable blackness. But, once in front of it, so too dissipates the desire to understand, and one finds oneself content to simply surrender to the pseudo-object’s sublime power. Simultaneously pushing and pulling across the scarred surface, towards the wall and then into the spectator’s space, Untitled humbly invades its environment, giving and taking in equal measure.
From the early years of the artist’s now-iconic series of wall relief sculptures, on which she worked from 1959 through 1967, Untitled represents a pivotal moment for Bontecou’s manifestation of lifelong ideas. “Since my early years, 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” (“Artist’s Statement,” in E. Smith, ed., Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective, Chicago, 2003, p. 12). Maturing during the optimistic Space Age and its darker Cold War counterpart, Bontecou (1931-2022) recognized and responded to the frightening tensions spawned by a rapidly industrialized and monetized post-war America. While streamlining work, rendering all sorts of products possible and available, and discovering new galaxies, the machine was also threatening the world order with its overwhelming capability to destroy what it explored. Artists around the world, like Robert Rauschenberg in the United States and Lucio Fontana in Europe, wrestled with these dichotomies—Rauschenberg in his chaos of images and Fontana in his spiritual, visceral punctures. The daughter of an inventor and a factory laborer, Bontecou was no stranger to the trappings of industrial production, yet she sought to engage with her materials on a more personal level akin to Fontana. By formalizing, compartmentalizing, juxtaposing, and arranging, Bontecou exercised control over her deliberate compositions in a way that bespoke both her awe at the heights humans could reach and her anxiety over the depths to which they might stoop.
Thus blending the mechanic and the organic, Bontecou constructed her own visual language amidst the cacophonous art world of mid-twentieth-century New York. In fact, Untitled has lived most of its life in the city where it was made, acquired from Leo Castelli Gallery by visionary philanthropist and New Museum of Contemporary Art co-founder Vera G. List before entering the private collection from which it is now being offered. While other artists in the late 1950s and early 1960s worked ferociously against the seemingly immutable legacy of the Abstract Expressionists, Bontecou praised the latter’s lively, relentless pursuit of creative liberation and their “dual use of paint itself as both subject and object” (quoted in E. Smith, “All Freedom in Every Sense,” in E. Smith, ed., Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective, Chicago, 2003, p. 172). Indeed, her free-hand wire structures, like the one that supports the present lot, invoke the gestural abandon of the first-generation New York School painters, as do her confounded boundaries between picture and support. These instincts served Bontecou well, especially in an art world dominated by male energy, as she mounted her first one-woman show at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in 1960, the same year as the present lot. From her studio on Avenue C in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, however, Bontecou’s vantage point was more akin to that of the magpie-proto-Pop artists, like Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg, who salvaged scrap materials to use in their work for reasons of both realism and thrift. The collected detritus determined the gritty palette of Bontecou’s wall reliefs, uniting greasy laundry sacks, army surplus supplies, metal fasteners, and the like in what curator Elizabeth Smith deems “rough poetry” (E. Smith, op. cit., p. 173).
Smith is justified in calling works like Untitled poetic, for Bontecou undertook the act of merging her disparate elements with a care and vision belied by their apparent roughness. Artists like Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, and Yayoi Kusama would soon carry Bontecou’s investigations to their own unique conclusions by introducing traditional handicraft media and techniques into the realm of fine art. Hesse’s net bag creation, Untitled or Not Yet (1966), similarly challenges the painting/sculpture dichotomy by hanging from the wall, weighted down by hunks of lead, while also utilizing unconventional and often feminized materials. An important precedent for this wanton expansion of what constitutes ‘art’, amongst others, was the Cubists—that earlier avant-garde circle who made pictures out of anything they could get their hands on, reveling in the patchwork aesthetic of collage. Pablo Picasso’s Guitar (1912) not only elevates base instruments like paper, string, and wire, but also centers on the deep void that simultaneously rejects and engulfs. The maker of music, sucking in sound, just as Untitled, the protruding lens, feeds on light.
“At one time I had a joy and excitement about outer spacenothing was known about the black holesjust huge, intangible, dangerous entities, and I felt great excitement when little Sputnik flew.”
— Lee Bontecou, in a letter to Jo Applin, 2002
As one of the first and most eloquent champions of Bontecou’s revolutionary, category-defying work, Donald Judd took great pleasure in her accomplished unity of elements, emphasizing how the sum of a Bontecou is worth far more than its parts. “The black hole does not allude to a black hole; it is one. The image does not suggest other things, but by analogy; the image is one thing among similar things” (“Lee Bontecou,” Arts Magazine 39, no. 7, April 1965, p. 20). The image is Judd’s reference to the overall gut punch a work like Untitled delivers on first glance—it is the comprehensive, coherent vision of spaces and shadows, lines and curves, soft fabric and steely wire contained within the metal border that enacts its devious seduction. Once in its orbit, subject to its influence, it is the component parts that trouble and stun as precisely what they profess to be—rends and voids, openings and closures. But what is one to do when faced with such a gaping abyss? Fontana asks a similar question in his career-defining La Fine di Dio series, which presents constellations of buchi as otherworldly signs. Yet, Bontecou softens and facilitates the confrontation she sets up between the seer and the seen through the work’s intimate scale and gentle details, for she knows the fear that accompanies the ethereal void. For facing it means facing oneself—inasmuch one desperately attempts to look through Untitled as a window, one can only reflect on Untitled as a mirror. The artist frustrates the desire to know the great beyond with the need to know oneself. In her own mysterious, enigmatic way, Bontecou thus suggests that perhaps it is us who carry the cosmos, and that it has been all along.

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