Through September 21, 2014
By Jeffrey Bussmann
Drawn Worlds is an apt subtitle for a retrospective of Lee Bontecou drawings. The indication to viewers is clear: they are entering a singular visual realm that Bontecou has forged all of her own. At times she materializes this world as a benevolent act of divine creation, while at others she acts in the role of mad scientist hell-bent on playing God who only ends up birthing monstrosities. Her work, spanning a career of almost sixty years, possesses a remarkable cohesiveness of vision despite these opposing polarities. There are neither veering tangents nor wearisome redundancies. Bontecou employs ideas and techniques as needed and divests once they have run their course. Everything in her work is there for a reason.
Drawing allows Bontecou to be art historical in a way that her mixed-media assemblages do not permit. Her 3D pieces are often pondered for their recurring Charybdis-like vaginae dentatae, something of a red herring in the discourse about her work. There are some of these seductive orifices in the drawings too, with an articulated reference to the Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth) in Rome, where Bontecou spent formative time as a student. Classical and Renaissance influences are present but unobtrusive. As a draughtswoman she matches the skill of Leonardo da Vinci while also incorporating allusions to his sketches. Her debt to his (and later artists’) écorchés cannot go unmentioned. In one particular drawing on display—all of Bontecou’s works are left untitled so as not to impart meaning—atmospheric swirls and stabbing diagonal strokes evoke Leonardo’s drawing of a violent rainstorm passing over an Alpine village and his studies of plants’ curled leaves. In her relatively scarce traditional landscapes Bontecou professes her unabashed admiration for another master, Vincent van Gogh.
In her early career technology opened up drawing to Bontecou in an entirely new way when she began to experiment with an oxyacetylene torch. She innovated a process by which she manipulated the oxygen level to produce her desired amount of soot, directing the velvety black effluvium onto paper and canvas. She was also an early experimenter with vacuum formed plastics in her Chrysalis series, in which she created fish and flowers that look straight out of the Paleozoic period. But with these reconstituted organisms Bontecou made no attempt to hide her hand—the screws and fasteners are visible, even in the concept drawings. These are plainly manmade facsimiles of plant and animal life. In a particularly noteworthy piece, one of the few large assemblages on display, she generates a similar tension by incorporating horseshoe crab carapaces among her metal sawtooth-lined hellmouths.
Bontecou’s work is endlessly fascinating because of balanced internal contradictions such as these. It is almost never entirely abstract nor figurative; it is of its time—the mid-to-late twentieth century—but evokes the past and envisions the future; it encompasses the natural and industrial worlds; and, it presents simultaneously pessimistic and optimistic views of humankind and our relationship to technology. In one wall label the audience is told of Bontecou’s excitement at the launch of the Space Age when Sputnik first flew. But in the work we often see grim and desolate views of scorched earth, flayed skin, and mutated-looking creatures. The dread of Cold War era mutually assured destruction lurks behind every corner. Her themes certainly owe something to predecessors like George Grosz and Otto Dix, chroniclers of the Great War’s devastating impact on Europe. In this way, Bontecou’s work continues to be relevant in the present amid the renewed specter of weapons of mass destruction and emergent concerns like drone warfare. One can imagine that her oeuvre will retain its prescience for years to come.
The strength of these drawings is reason enough to make a point of visiting Princeton for the exhibition (the Menil Collection in Houston having been the only other venue). More urgently, it is likely to be the largest concentration of Bontecou’s work that will be shown in North America for some time. Her last retrospective, co-organized by MoMA, MCA Chicago, and the Hammer Museum, took place a decade ago. Some museums are fortunate enough to have one of her medium or large assemblages, which often come laden with conservation challenges and may be hidden in storage, or perhaps a clutch of her drawings. Opportunities to view the work are scant, and the individual pieces, almost from an internal energy supply, reinforce one another when seen together. Bontecou herself, still working into her eighties with astonishing clarity, remains one of our most precious resources.
Jeffrey Bussmann works at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently completing his master’s thesis on the subject of early video art in Brazil.