Same Old Art

The many mouths of Lee Bontecou

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Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1961 (welded steel, canvas, black fabric, rawhide, copper wire, and soot)

In April of 1968, Lee Bontecou had a large solo exhibition at the Museum for Modern Art Schloss Morsbroich in Leverkusen, Germany. Her show then travelled to the Kunstverein Berlin in June of the same year. 

The catalogue essay that accompanied the exhibition contains one particularly intriguing contribution by Rolf Gunter Dienst. Dienst, a painter and art critic who played a significant role in introducing the American avant-garde of the 1960s to Germany, writes about Bontecou through the lens of what he calls the “the condition of art in America.”

Dienst describes the avant-garde in New York as an assortment of competing collectives that identify (and differentiate) themselves through style. The fact that specific styles dominate the art of what is considered to be the avant-garde throws a questionable light onto the revolutionary nature of contemporary art in 1968. What exactly makes it questionable though? If you, as a self-proclaimed avant-garde artist, submit your art to the dominating style of one or another art group, your work and the thought attached to it risks becoming nothing more than “group think”  (“Generalisierung,” as Dienst calls it). Your art then is no longer an art made by an individual about you as an individual. And because you then work according to the ideologies of one group, you may become less critical of them. For Rolf Gunter Dienst, a German citizen born in 1932, the suppression or at least manipulation of the individual through a group has some very real and profound consequences. It does not take much to realize that the ruling Nazi party and its attitude toward the individual haunts Dienst’s thinking here. The only thing that might come as a surprise is that he locates “group think” as a danger to artistic individuality. The avant-garde, pace Greenberg, is the last refuge of truly artistic autonomy - not so for Dienst. But it is a fascinating thought nonetheless.

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Roy Lichtenstein, Girl with Ball, oil on canvas, 1961

How does Lee Bontecou fit in here then? In the eyes of Rolf Gunter Dienst, Bontecou realizes and demonstrates her individuality through her work. This might seem like an overly enthusiastic proclamation, but rightfully so. What makes his observation so striking is the way that we tend to perceive or romanticize certain New York artists and their work produced in the 50s and 60s: Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns or Roy Lichtenstein. What about Lee Krasner? What about Agnes Martin? What about Eva Hesse? What about Lee Bontecou?

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Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1966 (Acrylic, cord, papier-maché, and wood, 7.5” x 7.5” x 4”)

It is not that these woman artists are completely absent from the discourse in recent art history (see, for example, Anne Wagner’s illuminating book Three Artists, Three Women) and even within the context of contemporary art. The problem lies in how their work is generally discussed: like the work of wondrous specimen. All made (and Bontecou continues to make) art that does not fit neatly into one category. They never belonged to or identified with Surrealism, Pop-Art, Abstract Expressionism or Minimalism: this complicates how to look at and talk about their work.

Rolf Gunter Dienst does not address gender in his essay. But he notes Bontecou’s “withdrawal” from the main art movements of her time without giving any further explanation (she left the Castelli Gallery in 1972 and with it the New York art world). To him the leading artists are undergoing a process of “de-individualisation” and only Bontecou has remained (partly because she was not a member of any boy’s club) resistant and “not manipulated.” Unlike the big names of the American avant-garde she has chosen “complication” over “trivialization.” These are some harsh, but incredibly refreshing words to come across in an essay on the state of American contemporary art in 1968!

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Alberto Burri, Combustione Plastica, 1958 (plastic, acrylic, burns on canvas)

MOCA’s recent exhibition Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962 that ended on January 14th, is an important example of how the experience of WW2 and the destruction it brought to large parts of Europe, Russia and Japan affected multiple generations of artists. They shared a sense that art had to be stripped, slashed and burned in order to be build up from the ground again. In Destroy the Picture, Lee Bontecou’s work stands out for a particular reason.

image            Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1961 (canvas, wire, rope, saw blades)

She does not simply dismantle art or question its post-war status. As worn as her material sources look, she patches them up, she joins pieces together that do not belong together (canvas from a laundry store, fabric, copper wire, saw blades, sooth). Her work is reconciliatory and threatening at the same time. Bontecou assembles parts that add up to objects. As wholesome as they appear, her objects resemble war machinery similar to the equipment left behind by fleeing enemy armies. Although defunct by now, they still emit an aura of annihilation. When you stand in front of one of her sculptural pieces, you stare down a hole while the hole stares back at you, ready to swallow whatever comes its way. 

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Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1962 (canvas, welded steel, wire construction, 57” x 54.5” x 22”)

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Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1960 (canvas, steel, velvet, 49” x 96” x 14”)

It is not all about brute sentiments in Lee Bontecou’s work in the 60s. Her assemblage pieces are never too mechanic to take on the look of manufactured goods. These are hand-crafted objects recalling structures that can be found both in the natural and industrial world. These are not Jasper Johns’ painted bronze cans or Robert Rauschenberg’s combines either. This is not to say that Bontecou’s work is comparatively better or worse. But what if we talked about Lee Bontecou in the way that we talked about Johns and Rauschenberg? What if we switched the order of hierarchies in favor of Lee Bontecou or Eva Hesse? Would younger generations of artists be looking at popular culture to the same extent? Are there other ways of making art than constantly referencing and manipulating icons of art history? What about the darker aspects of life? How do they fit in?

In an interview in 2004 at the time of her retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Lee Bontecou was asked about her relationship to politics:

If you say there’s two sides of human nature—I don’t know if I’m going to come out with a sentence [here]—but if you say there’s a dark side of us, the underbelly, and then the inspirational things that are in us, I put those two things in. The jets and the planes, which are beautiful, they’re also killers. So it’s political but not that kind of political. We have wars that man can’t seem to stop, and he makes these beautiful things.”

As open as her work is to different and even opposing interpretations, it addresses some of our most basic faculties: the ability to wonder. Art that is engaging, meaningful and evocative is not about a certain degree of “freshness” or that it makes us feel smart because we understand how it cites other art works. Instead of overwhelming us with something flashy or “ha ha” ironic, art should threaten to absorb us and draw us in. The many mouths that cover the surfaces of Lee Bontecou’s work are exactly that: their openings - with or without teeth - promise to deliver the excitement and fear of not knowing what lies beyond them. The next time you encounter one of Bontecou’s sculptures, allow yourself to test their promise.

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