Lee Bontecou’s ability to capture the sublime essence of the world around her, blending visual forms inspired by science and nature, led to her emergence as a celebrated force in the New York art scene of the 1960s. The timelessness of her work, and its direct response to the political and social environment of the latter half of the last century is something that resonates as poignantly today as it did then. In Untitled, 1962, Bontecou has expressed through an extraordinary work of graphite and soot on muslin, a true union of technological and organic form. The artist, who frequently worked in sculpture, was also renowned for her ability to convey precise, beautifully evocative, and detailed drawn compositions.
Applied directly onto muslin, the velvety richness of the central design is accentuated by a deep black circle at its core, then echoed in the three smaller black circles at the center of the central horizontal elements, which serve to delineate between the figurative center and more abstract background. The outer ring is similarly mechanical in appearance, summoning thoughts of engine turbines or propellers spinning in rapid motion, or the visual expression of speed in flight. Somehow, it also recalls natural phenomena, as if in the inner part of a shell or the wing of a bird, the whole resulting in a sublimely moving work that appears to flow through space and time.
Bontecou possesses unparalleled skills at conveying beautifully rendered details and a richness in tone, by virtue of her use of a soft fabric base and expertly applied black soot. The artist’s signature method for this arose from her sculptural practice, in which she discovered that she could use a welding torch, with the flame turned off, to build up careful layers of soot by channeling the compressed air onto the pictorial surface. From there, she would work to erase and remove the black pigment with brushes, erasers, razor blades, and her fingers, creating a layered composition that is akin to sculpting on a flat surface.
Skilled at both drawing and sculpture, Bontecou has always displayed a fluidity in her practice as she moved between mediums, easily shifting back and forth from two to three dimensions. In some ways these two visual modes are very intertwined in their approaches, ideas, technique, and aesthetics, yet her drawings also stand out as a distinct example of her proficiency with experimentation and the creation of her unique style. The importance of Bontecou’s drawings was highlighted in a recent retrospective exhibition at the Menil Collection in Houston, where the curator Michelle White, wrote: “In the work of Lee Bontecou, drawing is everywhere. It is in the welded steel frames that support stretched pieces of coarse cloth, the wire stitches that hold together delicate ceramic forms, and the black soot that sweeps across muslin surfaces. It is in the tentacle-like strands of the translucent resin that drip from plastic flower petals, the contours that define hovering space-age sculptures, and the linear shadows that fall on the wall when light touches the surfaces of suspended forms” (M. White, “Lee Bontecou’s Drawn Worlds,” Lee Bontecou: Drawn Worlds, Yale, 2014, p. 9). One of the highlights of the exhibition was a similar work to Untitled, emphasizing the importance of the present work in context, and overall, the significance of her drawing as part of her primary expressive means.
In the early 1960s, when Untitled was created, Bontecou was enjoying considerable success in the New York art world, as one of the very few women artists to achieve recognition for her efforts at the time. Following years of rigorous study and a Fulbright fellowship that sent her to Rome in the 1950s, the artist had truly come into her own as an established member of the New York art community. Among the many admirers and collectors Bontecou found in this period was Donald Judd, who frequently spoke out as an avid champion of her work and thoughtful proponent of her established individual style. Judd noted exceptional mastery, and was an advocate for her ability to express herself using imagery unlike anyone else at the time. Indeed, her work has frequently defied classification, and while she has been grouped within categories of feminist, minimalist, and even latter-day surrealist art, Bontecou has managed to exist beyond any direct associations, standing on her own as a true original. Because of the ingenuity of her creations, she is often recognized for having anticipated the aesthetics of recent art history, and has continued to gain ever-increasing interest from contemporary artists, critics, and curators.
That Untitled can be seen as a part of American postwar culture that still resonates today is evidence of the timelessness of Bontecou’s oeuvre. In the early 1960s, she was working in direct response to Cold War politics, and the mood of the day, creating art works that addressed her own hopes and anxieties. In her words, “Rockefeller was trying to push bomb shelters on us. Africa was in trouble and we were so negative… Then I remembered the killings, the Holocaust. The political scene. And out of that came two feelings… I’d get so depressed that I’d have to stop and turn to a more open work, work that I felt was more optimistic—where for example, there might be just a single opening, and the space beyond it was like opening up into space, feeling space” (B. Tempel, et. al, Lee Bontecou, The Hague, 2017, p. 18). Although she retreated from New York in the 1970s, Bontecou continued creating art, teaching, and devoting herself to her exceptional work. In Untitled, we see her artistic skill in full display, with imagery of a post-war America somehow transformed beyond a literal retelling, and adapted as a pure expression of the artist’s ability to successfully translate the polarities of her culture into a beautiful, thoughtful, and important work.