Lee Bontecou's "Warnings"

Article excerpt

In 1962 Joseph Cornell wrote about Lee Bontecou:

In other days there were the "mouth of truth" and the lion's mouths of the Venetian Inquisition, then, there is the terror of the yawning mouths of cannons, of violent craters, of windows opened to receive your flight without return, and the jaws of great beasts; and now we have Lee's warnings.(1)

That Cornell, Bontecou's friend in the early sixties, understood "Lee's warnings" is clear. Bontecou's longstanding passionate involvement with political and social concerns dates from her childhood experiences of World War II. The moral urgency that she invested in her work--from the early "worldscapes" to the monumental constructions of the sixties--is a key to an expanded understanding of the power and complex meanings of her sculpture. The compelling nature of her work, which is not simply political or sexual (as has often been maintained), derives in part from Bontecou's employment of the body as the site of social protest. The artist's convictions were expressed ever more powerfully as her references to the body grew stronger--as her small boxes evolved into the large constructions.

In Bontecou's words, "black" started it all: "Getting the black...opened everything up....I had to find a way of harnessing it."(2) Her experiments with black in the fifties became a springboard for a group of drawings and small sculptures that were seminal for her major work, which was shown at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in the early sixties. Bontecou discovered the potential of black while residing on a Fulbright scholarship in Italy in 1957-58, when she began making soot drawings (fig. 1) using an acetylene torch with the oxygen turned down.(Figure 1 omitted) In these drawings, which she called "worldscapes," velvety black forms graduate slowly and atmospherically toward a horizon. This original and inventive use of the welding torch for drawing foreshadowed Bontecou's arresting amalgamations of two-and three-dimensional elements.

Bontecou returned to New York in 1958-59 and began experimenting with the imagery and formal properties (primarily the black) of the drawings. She created a group of small boxes with welded frames filled in by pieces of muslin or canvas that had been darkened by the torch and that featured internal suspended miniature spheres suggesting caged worlds. In one construction (fig. 2) a barely visible sphere wrapped in translucent material hangs between two boxes.(Figure 2 omitted) Whereas several sculptures resemble this example, others suggest an old camera or a rat cage. Their lineage from the soot drawings is apparent in a small box with a slit in the center that evokes a horizon line. These works, generally composed of more than one box, gave rise to small, single rectangles with central round holes (fig. 3), which were in turn progenitors of Bontecou's monumental signature style (fig. 4).(Figures 3 and 4 omitted) Tracing this evolution, from small, boxed worldscapes to aggressive, large-scale constructions featuring central openings, proves crucial to understanding Bontecou's oeuvre.

Historically Bontecou's sculpture occupies a transitional place. Her work stands at a crossroads: it looks back to the Surrealists she admired; it relates in its use of found objects (worn-out canvas laundry conveyor belts, for example) to the Assemblage artists of her own generation; and it anticipates both the Minimalists of the sixties, who championed her sculpture as a new class of art "object," and later the feminists, who heralded her imagery.(3) Bontecou favored works by Alberto Giacometti among the Surrealists and has remarked on the mysterious suspended forms in The Palace at 4 A .M., 1932-33 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), and his expressive spatial constructions, such as Piazza, 1947-48, a cast of which she saw and admired in Italy. She was particularly drawn to the sculpture of "the master of mystery," Cornell, who, as she put it, "had beautiful worlds in his boxes. …