In 1972, when I was a deeply green, 19-year-old Midwestern art student, I was blown away by a Lee Bontecou survey in Chicago. Here were these bilious, bulbous things, ominous, outlandish, alarming, and alluring—organisms unto themselves, neither sculpture nor painting, but something between cave painting, constructivism, intrauterine architecture, and the gates of hell. Made of welded metal, copper wire, sooty canvas, and army-surplus supplies, they were modern but not in the minimal, pop, or conceptual ways I was learning about. They were modern in a pre-modern, almost archaic way, like Giacometti’s stick people or Golub’s brutes. I had already been floored by the modern primitivism of Eva Hesse, who had been wowed by Bontecou: “I am amazed at what this woman can do,” Hesse wrote. Bontecou struck me as far less experimental, dynamic, or contemporary than Hesse. She was more of an angsty throwback to abstract expressionism. Bontecou had said, “I want to awaken in the beholder some dormant reality.” Old-school or not, that’s the reality she awakened in me.
Unfortunately, that reality was fleeting. I learned that Bontecou was a big deal in New York, the only woman in the Castelli Gallery stable, and that Donald Judd had written that she was “one of the best artists working anywhere.” Then she was gone.
Legend has it that her 1972 Castelli show of vacuum-formed fish and plastic flowers was critically panned and she “turned her back on the art world.” This is melodrama. The most negative review I found (albeit in The New York Times) wasn’t that negative. Essentially, the critic said this was Bontecou’s least successful work. In fact, if fish and flowers were all there were to her oeuvre, there’d be no Bontecou beatification. And if Bontecou left the art world because of this, she has pretty thin skin. Many artists have toughed it out over far worse. Other explanations for Bontecou’s vanishing read more like paranoid fantasies. The truth is more mundane and telling. “I needed a rest,” she now says. She settled in rural Pennsylvania with her artist husband, had a child (“Having a baby was the most wonderful piece of sculpture I ever made”), and for 20 years commuted to Brooklyn College to teach. Meanwhile, her low-to-no profile turned Bontecou into a kind of ghost artist.
Now 73, she’s back. Her well-selected, at times dated-looking, occasionally overpowering retrospective doesn’t live up to the extravagant praise heaped upon it in its previous stops in Los Angeles and Chicago, where Bontecou was lauded as “heroic” and “triumphant.” At MOMA, larger works are sometimes crowded together, and smaller ones are grouped in cases so that Bontecou comes off more fusty than she did in Chicago, where she looked otherworldly. There, her recent airy, atomized mobiles resembling sailing ships and dragonflies from other solar systems were striking. Here, they’re only interesting.
The problems aren’t all due to the installation. I love much of her work, but Bontecou is an extremely dogged, repetitious artist. One piece is much like the next; monotony sets in. You long for a change in tone, texture, color, or mood. Anything other than gravitas. When she finally initiates a change in 1966, a process seen here in the two strongest, most garish pieces in the show—both from that year—she doesn’t follow through. Gradually, you realize that Bontecou left the art world because she refused to pressure herself. She wasn’t lazy; she just wanted to pursue her own work in her own time, out of the spotlight and in private. This might have been a survival tactic but I think it stunted her development.
Nevertheless, much of her work is spellbinding. This show makes clear that Bontecou totally nailed a very particular herniating, ulcerating, telescoping space. This space is both entirely her own and universal, no small feat. The spatial effect is especially palpable in the dark, spooky reliefs that she made between 1959 and 1968 (the pre-1959 work is hokey and weak). These ’60s works look like lunar landscapes, imaginary multi-eyed sea creatures, or slicing continental plates. It’s as if she invented these wild devices that allow you to peer into a parallel plane where space bulges, goes elastic, then ectoplasmic. These works nearly always have round or oblong black holes that bring you from outside to inside to someplace metaphysical and sexual. You look into these holes but can’t see the back of them. This bottomlessness accounts for much of the cosmic and erotic clout in Bontecou’s work.
Many have likened Bontecou’s early pieces to vagina dentata. This drove, and apparently still drives, her nuts. In the first sentence of her statement in the show’s superb catalog, she complains, “There has been so much written about my work that has nothing to do with me.” Her vexation is understandable but misplaced. Jasper Johns said, “If you invent chewing gum in your studio and everyone uses it as glue, you’ve also invented glue.” In fact, the multiple associations in Bontecou’s work—sexual, terrestrial, and celestial—are what makes some of her art so wide-reaching and powerful. Just as the work of Georgia O’Keeffe and Jay DeFeo is not only vaginal or female, so Bontecou’s best work opens up onto more than femaleness or sex and unveils a fragmented abstract language.