Untitled is an iconic work that was included in the artist's first exhibition of her signature wall-reliefs at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1960. This show marked the beginning of the artist's notoriety, critical acclaim and controversy surrounding her work. Dorothy C. Miller was an early supporter, acquiring Untitled from the Castelli exhibition and chose her work for the important Americans 1963 at the MoMA. Bontecou created her best-known works between the years of 1959 and 1969, after which her work changed significantly. After 1971, she would not have another solo exhibition in New York for nearly 30 years.
Bontecou's work has always sparked fierce debate, particularly when it comes to its interpretation. Elizabeth A.T. Smith has pointed out in her essay for the forthcoming Lee Bontecou retrospective, "numerous critics read the imagery of her sculpture, particularly the dark circular projecting openings, as mouths or vaginas, which promoted an array of negative associations such as 'menacing', 'terrifying', and even 'pain-inflicting'" (E.A.T. Smith, Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue Chicago, MCA, 2003, p. 173). That these characteristics were attributed to an woman artist in the early 1960s only fueled the fire of the discourse.
Her sculpture consists of a welded steel armature, upon which are stretched various found fabrics, including knapsacks, laundry bags and army surplus items. The subtle earth tones and loose geometric structure give it the feeling of an Analytical Cubist painting come to life and made three-dimensional. The jagged, craggy surface of Untitled with its central hollow brings multiple associations to mind--a cave, a secret portal, a lunar crater turned on its side, or a black hole reaching out towards the viewer--indeed, the artist has commented that, "At one time I had a joy and excitement about outer space--nothing was known about the black holes--just huge, intangible, dangerous, entities, and I felt great excitement when the little Sputnik flew.
Bontecou's sculpture is ultimately about mystery, creating works that are associative but not illustrative. Fiercely independent, Bontecou has resisted many of the interpretations of her work. "I can only say that I do not know if what I am doing is art nor do I have any real concern. I just want to do what I believe and what I want to do, and what I must do to get what I want something that is natural and something that exists in us all" (L. Bontecou, as quoted in Americans 1963, New York, 1963, p. 12).
Lee Bontecou photograph by Giulia Niccolai