Untitled is an iconic, large-scale Lee Bontecou sculpture that was acquired from the Leo Castelli Gallery, where it was included in the artist's first exhibition of her signature wall-reliefs in 1960. This show marked the beginning of the artist's notoriety, critical acclaim and controversy surrounding her work. Vera List was Bontecou's greatest patron, collecting her work from the outset and throughout Bontecou's career. In addition to acquiring works for her own collection, she gifted a number of major paintings to museums and public institutions, including the present lot, which she gave to the New School of Social Research in New York in the mid-1960's. A benefactor of education, opera and social justice, as well as the arts, List's philanthropic activities included enormously generous donations to Brown University in Rhode Island and Lincoln Center in New York, among others.
Untitled 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" (As quoted in Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue Chicago, MCA, 2003, p. 174). Included in numerous seminal exhibitions and fresh to the market after being in the same public collection for 40 years, the offering of Untitled is a rare opportunity.
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. Her current travelling retrospective has created a renaisance of appreciation for Bontecou--it re-introduces her historical important work from the 1960's, but also shows the artist's recent work as equally compelling and revelent to today's contemporary discourse.
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 debate.
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, exhibition catalogue, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1963, p. 12).
Lee Bontecou working on her sculpture for Lincoln Center in her Wooster Street studio, New York, 1964. Photograph by Hans Namuth. c Hans Namuth Estate, Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona
Bontecou in her Wooster Street studio, New York, 1963 Photograph by Ugo Mulas
Bontecou in her Wooster Street studio, New York, 1963 Photograph by Ugo MulasR
Life magazine featuring Untitled, 19 September 1960