Lee Bontecou's startlingly original sculptures made her one of the most celebrated young artists in New York during the 1960s. Her complex assemblages allude to both the machine and the organic world, straddling the categories of abstraction and figuration, while also blurring the boundaries between painting and sculpture. Bontecou's formative works exemplify the dynamic expansion of the notion of sculpture during the sixties, and reverberate with the deep anxieties of the Cold War era. As Bontecou declared in the early sixties, her central concern was 'to glimpse some of the fear, hope, ugliness, beauty and mystery that exist in us all and which hangs over the young people today' (quoted in Americans 1963, New York, 1963, p. 12).
Untitled of 1962 is an important and powerful example of her most renowned body of work, her large-scale wall-mounted sculptural reliefs of the early sixties. In these groundbreaking works, Bontecou built up a heavy armature of metal, which she then covered in scraps of canvas and an array of industrial materials and objects, including screws, zippers, pipes, saw teeth, fan blades and even helmets and gas masks. The result is a highly charged assemblage, which thrusts outward into the viewer's space with a distinctly forceful energy. The center of the composition is dominated by Bontecou's signature motif of a black cavity, which here is embedded with a row of threatening metal teeth. Viewing the work in person becomes a psychologically charged encounter.
Bontecou studied painting and sculpture at the Art Students League in downtown New York from 1952 to 1955, at the height of the Abstract Expressionist era, when painters such as de Kooning, Pollock and Kline dominated the art scene and caroused in the Cedar Bar. As Bontecou acknowledged in the late fifties, 'the individual freedom inherent in abstract expressionism energized and electrified the art world, particularly [their] dual use of paint itself as both subject and object. It was from their spirit of individual expression the following generations would be influenced' (quoted in Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective, New York, 2003, p. 172)
Indeed, the overall composition, prominent drip marks, and vigorous expressiveness of Bontecou's Untitled relate it to the heritage of the Abstract Expressionists, even while she took their gestures in a wholly new direction. The influential critic Harold Rosenberg was an early supporter of her work, as it shared some of the vigorous, foreboding and angst-ridden qualities that he had earlier championed in paintings by de Kooning, Pollock and Guston. Certainly, Bontecou's Untitled seems to personify Rosenberg's celebration of "the anxious object." Rosenberg tellingly described Bontecou's reliefs as being composed of "erotically menacing steel" - a characterization that relates, perhaps, to the specter of threatening femininity that de Kooning earlier crystallized in his famous depictions of women, particularly in their gnashing teeth (quoted Action Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning and American Art, 1940-1976, New York, 2008, p. 175).
Bontecou's sculptures such as Untitled are palpably infused with the atmosphere of violence and angst that pervaded the Cold War era. This work is saturated with an apocalyptic mood, its central cavity suggesting a death machine and surrounding forms evoking gas masks. The soundtrack for works such as Untitled was supplied by the international news programs that Bontecou would listen to in her studio. During the sixties, she described, 'I was angry. I used to work with the United Nations program on the short-wave radio in my studio. I used it like background music, and in a way, the anger became part of the process. During World War II we'd been too young. But at that later time, all the feelings I'd had back then came to me again...Africa was in trouble and we were so negative. Then I remembered the killings, the Holocaust, the political scene' (Ibid.).
Another component of the social and political consciousness that is inflected in works such as Untitled is an allusion to the space race. Bontecou recalled 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 little Sputnik flew' (quoted in Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective, p. 174). The orifices of Untitled hint at the unfathomable space of black holes, while the sculpture itself seems to be some new technological hybrid. These materials, however, came from the East Village streets around Bontecou's studio, where she scavenged items such as rope, laundry bags, metal bolts, gears, helmets, and army surplus items to transform into her unique sculptures.