"If you put your hand in and you tell a lie something would bite it off"
(L. Bontecou quoted in M. Handler, "Lee Bontecou's "Warnings'", Art Journal, vol. 53, p. 57).
Lee Bontecou had her first solo show at Leo Castelli Gallery in November 1960, at a time when she was the only woman included among his otherwise peerless roll-call of movers and shakers in the 1960s art world. (In all she would have four solo exhibitions at Castelli through 1971, followed by a fifth in 1999 surveying her work through 1972.) Enthusiastically reviewing her 1960 solo show, sculptor Donald Judd writes, "Bontecou displays an altogether novel authority and breadth of expression and of the means necessary to it" (D. Judd, The Complete Writings 1959-1975, 2005). Even so, Judd reserves his greatest acclaim for Bontecou's next and "even better" solo show at Castelli in November 1962, when he describes her work as "credible and awesome", and the artist herself as "one of the best artists working anywhere" (p. 65). For Judd, the import of Bonectou's work seems to be principally (if no less significantly on this account) how it embodies his own theory of "specific objects", as famously articulated in his eponymous article of 1965. "Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture" (p. 181); so begins "Specific Objects", as if paraphrasing the opening lines of his third monograph on Bontecou, also from 1965, which begins: "Lee Bontecou was one of the first to use a three-dimensional form that was neither painting nor sculpture. Her work is explicit and powerful" (p. 178). In this sense, Judd commends how the various aspects of Bontecou's work (in particular, its scale, structure and image) "combine exponentially" into what he nevertheless describes as a "remarkably single" form (p. 178); as a result, our experience of it is "actual and specific and as an object" (p. 65). Of course, the complex trajectory from not-quite-painting to not-exactly-sculpture is one of the watershed trends in modern art, traceable from Picasso's mural display of a cardboard-sculpture guitar in 1912, through Rauschenberg's Murphy bed-like hanging of "dirty" linens in 1955, to the 1961 "Art of Assemblage" exhibition at MoMA, which included comparable examples of "pictorial sculpture" by Bontecou (despite her disdain for describing her art as "assemblage") and, one of her three allies whom she explicitly acknowledges as such, John Chamberlain. Although Judd is quick to dismiss the "Cubist dispersion" of elements in Bontecou's work as somehow "less important" (p. 65), the influence of Cubism is most apparent in these early works.
While living in Rome from 1956-58 as a Fullbright scholar, Bontecou experimented with a dizzying array of sculptural techniques (truly - requiring as they often did the absence of oxygen!), including terra-cotta sculptures (for a time she lived in a terra-cotta factory) and "soot" drawings produced by cutting off the oxygen in her oxyacetylene tanks; in effect, she drew with her torch as others might weld. Upon her return to the states she continued to weld, although the steel and canvas reliefs for which she is best known, including her intimately scaled, not quite square Untitled relief from 1961, are unlike any others. Together, these early works establish their common cause with the earthy palette of Analytic Cubism: the predominance of ocher hues in her terra-cotta sculptures and canvas reliefs, like the rich value contrasts in her "soot" drawings, running from cavernous blacks and ethereal grays to luminescent whites. Also like the painterly reliefs of Analytic Cubsim - that sense that all pictorial space has been compressed onto a common plane - her fractured-and-cemented terra-cotta sculptures, sewn-and-welded sculptural reliefs and masked-and-scraped drawings also share an emphatic wholeness, not despite their "exponential combination" of parts, because of it, as Judd early recognized. It is this fundamentally synthetic approach to art marking, which her Untitled relief from 1961 exemplifies. Made of canvas sewed onto welded steel, it "seamfully" blends whatever tendency we might have to think of sewing as traditionally feminine (albeit, here, with a metallic twist) versus welding as conventionally masculine (thus, the transgressive humor of Rosie the Riveter) - in favor of an artsitic vision which can only be described as "third sex". No less does her Untitled relief dispense with another binary tendency we might have - to consider canvas the very stuff of pictures, but not sculptures - by instead using canvas as a sculptural medium, just as her "soot" drawings might be said to transform a sculptor's torch into a draftsman's pencil.
As Bontecou describes her reconciliation of painting and sculpture, illusion and reality, "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" (E. Munro, Originals: American Women Artists, 1979, p.384). And as in Picasso's cardboard-sculpture Guitar, it is the hole that here, too, establishes the whole: for Picasso, it was a question of turning space inside out, a cylindrical sound-hole that defiantly pierces a nonexistent sound-board. For Bontecou, not dissimilarly, it is a question of transcending the illusionism of two dimensions as the reality of three, as it was for Judd: a "black hole that does not allude to a black hole; it is one" (p. 178). Nevertheless, backed with black velveteen, all the better to open cavernously wide and insatiably deep, the hole conjures a range of associations from the Mouth of Truth in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome - popularized in Roman Holiday, when Gregory Peck tricks Audrey Hepburn into reaching deep within, only to think she will pull nothing back - to "the terror of the yawning mouths of cannons, of violent craters, of windows opened to receive your flight without return", as Joseph Cornell has described Bontecou's "warnings". For Hesse - more benignly, perhaps - it must have been a vision of her own work in the years to come (as it was for Judd, if in a different way), which Bontecou "unveiled": the uncanny possibility of abstract sculpture to become fully bodily - with canvas for skin, steel in its veins, and a great maw that inexorably draws you in - yet, all the while, remain wholly abstract.