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Property from the Abrams Family Collection


signed and dated 'Bontecou 60' (lower right)
welded steel, canvas, fabric, velvet and wire
42 ½ x 41 ½ x 8 in. (108 x 105.4 x 20.3 cm.)
Executed in 1959-1960.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1960
By descent from the above to the present owner
São Paulo, VI Biennial of the Museum of Modern Art, 1961.
New York, The Jewish Museum, Recent American Sculpture, October-November 1964, no. 10.
New York, The National Institute of Arts and Letters, An Exhibition of Contemporary Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Art, March 1966.
New York, The Jewish Museum, The Harry N. Abrams Family Collection, June-September 1966, no. 13.
Leverkusen, Städtisches Museum Schloss Morsbroich, Lee Bontecou, March-April 1968.
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Lee Bontecou: 1958-1972, October-November 1999.

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

“I just got tired of sculpture as a big thing in the middle of a room. I wanted it to go into space.” Lee Bontecou

Executed between 1959 and 1960, Lee Bontecou’s Untitled is a monumental example of the wall- mounted steel-and-canvas sculptures for which she is best known. Rendered on an impressive scale, and spanning nearly three-and-a-half feet and projecting outward from the wall, it is one of only a handful of the artist’s works of this size and complexity to ever come up at auction. This particular construction was created in 1959, the first year that Bontecou initiated the series. It was acquired by Harry N. Abrams directly from Leo Castelli Gallery shortly after its creation, and has stayed in his family collection ever since. Untitled epitomizes the strange talismanic power of this highly-coveted body of work.

In Untitled, Bontecou has constructed an array of telescopic openings that are clustered around a large centralized cavity. Pieces of canvas have been laid atop a metal armature and sewn together using wire and rabbit glue. Projecting outward from the wall, a series of these open craters invite interrogation, but in doing so, the viewer in confronted by a seemingly impenetrable blackness. Combining both the mechanical and the organic, Untitled calls to mind the riveted slats of a jet airplane but also the segmented pieces of an insect’s outer shell.

To create her wall-reliefs, Bontecou scoured her East Village neighborhood in New York for unusual materials. She gravitated toward the dirty mail bags she found lying underneath mailboxes on the street and also used the canvas conveyor belt panels from the laundromat on the bottom floor of her building. She began by welding a metal armature, over which she attached pieces of canvas using wire and glue. As she stretched and pulled the fabric over its armature and softened it with the glue, the fabric yielded a pliable surface that the artist enjoyed.

“Canvas was the answer,” the artist later explained, as she worked to discover the unique hybridization of painting and sculpture that these welded wall-reliefs have come to represent. “I was after a kind of illusion. With painting you have illusion. The surface is two-dimensional, so everything that happens on it is illusionary. I love that. But it seemed you couldn't have that in stone, wood, or most welded stuff because the material was so heavy; there is no illusionary depth. But this canvas was the answer. I could push a part of this structure way, way back. I could go way deep, and the blackness played its part in that too” (L. Bontecou, quoted in E. Munro, Originals: American Women Artists, New York, 1979, p. 384).

“To me it was like the whole universe. It was exciting. I kept dreaming and dreaming about these things, and then they got bigger.” Lee Bontecou

The wall-reliefs were a natural extension of the terracotta and cement sculpture that Bontecou had experimented with beginning in the mid-1950s while living in Rome. In 1956, Bontecou was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and traveled to Italy, where she lived until 1958. While in Rome, Bontecou made some experimental sculpture that in many ways prefigures the wall-reliefs that would emerge in 1959. In some of these early sculptures, Bontecou used wet clay that she laid over an armature and allowed to dry. She also explored a series of drawings in which she used a blowtorch to create a rich, velvety black texture that she enjoyed. "One day I found that by cutting off the oxygen from my blowtorch tanks and just drawing with the acetylene, I got a beautiful black line,” she explained. “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, quoted in L. Tone, Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective, exhibition brochure, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2004, p. 3).

As in Untitled, the reliefs telescope outward from the wall creating large craters that invite, almost demand, close inspection. Stepping closer to the opening and looking deeper into the hole, one discovers a strange kind of darkened space. It is an unusual sort of darkness—one that is “empty” and “blank” but at the same time, filled with a certain presence. This is due in part to the dark velvet fabric that Bontecou uses to line the inside of the work. The fabric creates a dark, velvety atmosphere, absorbing light but also allowing the eye to barely perceive the color and texture of the fabric. It is not unlike staring up into the recesses of the night sky—the eye perceives depth, but cannot actually determine how deep into space it actually recedes. It is perhaps for these reasons that Bontecou’s wall-reliefs have been compared to celestial black holes. “To me it was like the whole universe,” she said. “It was exciting. I kept dreaming and dreaming about these things, and then they got bigger” (L. Bontecou, quoted in P. Trachtman, “Lee Bontecou’s Brave New World," Smithsonian Magazine, September 2004).

Perhaps because of these dark associations, it is often difficult to separate the wall-reliefs from the era in which they were created. As the artist herself has acknowledged, she was drawn to the optimism of the Space Age and the promises it held for elevating humanity into a new era of peace and prosperity, but at the same time, she was held captive by her anxiety over escalating tensions between the United States and the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War. Bontecou recalls listening to the radio while working on the reliefs in her East Village apartment, on the one hand listening to the United Nations General Assembly in October of 1960 (in which Nikita Khrushchev famously slammed his shoe onto the rostrum in defiance of American imperialism), but on the other, finding inspiration in the early information sent back from Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, that was sent into orbit in 1957. As Bontecou later recalled of this time, “I'd have to stop and turn to more open work, work that I felt was more optimistic— where, for example, there might be just one single opening, and the space beyond it was like opening up into the heavens, going up into space. The other kind of work was like war equipment. With teeth....” (L. Bontecou, quoted in L. Tone, op. cit., p. 7).

“…canvas was the answer. I could push a part of this structure way, way back. I could go way deep, and the blackness played its part in that too.” Lee Bontecou

Working with a technique both refined and raw, equal parts beautiful and strange, Bontecou’s wall-reliefs have made her a singular voice of her generation, and they linger with a curious presence that ultimately leaves the viewer with more questions than they do answers. An exceptional example of the welded-steel reliefs for which she is best known, Untitled of 1959-60 epitomizes these mysterious forces behind this celebrated body of work.

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