Art

Descending into Lee Bontecou’s Apocalyptic Voids

Like her massive wall reliefs, Bontecou’s works on paper evoke the world as fragile, teetering on the brink of total calamity.

Lee Bontecou, “Fifth Stone” (1964) (courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, © 2019 Lee Bontecou)

CHICAGO — Lee Bontecou is an artist of post-WWII decay and devastation, envisioning post-apocalyptic worlds through innovative methods that blend sculpture, painting, and drawing. She is best known for massive wall reliefs she creates by contorting steel, slicing canvas, and twisting wire into dark cavities that resemble voids. The black voids of those cavities seem to invite us to peer into the work with trepidation, while evoking the world as fragile, teetering on the brink of total calamity.

Throughout the 1960s, Bontecou’s artistic provocations were widely praised by critics, most famously by her contemporary Donald Judd, writing about Bontecou in Arts Magazine. In the early 1970s, she began teaching at Brooklyn College, and by the 1980s, she left the New York art world to make her unique sculptures in a barn on a Pennsylvania farm, where she still resides. In 2003-2004, the artist received a momentous retrospective that traveled from the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Seeing the new work for the first time, the curators were in awe; Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum, said she nearly fainted when Bontecou revealed the huge, galaxy-like sculptures of porcelain and wire. In the past decade, there have been no less than four major exhibitions dedicated to re-examining Bontecou’s legacy. This vigorous recovery effort continues with Into the Void: Prints of Lee Bontecou, currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, which contextualizes the wall reliefs within the artist’s lesser-known experiments in printmaking and drawing.

Lee Bontecou, “Untitled” (1960) (courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, © 2019 Lee Bontecou)

Collaborating with Tatyana Grosman’s Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) workshop in West Islip, New York, Bontecou produced an impressively diverse range of prints between 1962 and 1982 that pair with particular sculptures of the same years. (The complete collection is held within the Art Institute’s archives.) Six galleries, containing over 100 objects, illustrate the process of her printmaking. The wall labels provide insight into the stages of production and include quotations from Bontecou in which she expresses frustration and dissatisfaction with a completed print, prompting her to start over and attempt yet another representation of the void.

Lee Bontecou, Portfolio Box from Fifth Stone, Sixth Stone (1967-68) (courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, © 2019 Lee Bontecou)

In the main gallery the extraordinary wall relief “Untitled” (1960) functions as the reference for the three other walls on which numerous trial prints from the Stone series (1964) are hung. Each print is a focused study of what one wall label calls the blackened void of “Untitled.” The prints require a patient attention to the repetition and slight variation in color and form; each is a permutation of Bontecou’s signature void, around which subtle traces of pale yellow and burnt orange are discernible. The colors coordinate with the painterly effects of the canvas and fabric that comprise the wall relief. As I searched for differences between the prints, my eyes were drawn to the sameness of the dark voids at the center.

The Stone series continues into subsequent galleries, which also includes ambitious and intricate works like “An Untitled Print” (1981-2). With what appears to be the haphazard movement of waves and clouds, this large print conjures a world that trembles with chaos. Whereas much of Bontecou’s printmaking tends toward abstraction, some lithographs evidence her concern with ecology through the motif of flowers. She portends ecological disaster through petals that appear riven with bolts and hoses that replace stems. These mechanical flowers relate to her 1967-69 series of vacuum-formed plastic flowers that suggest gas masks, prompting the viewer to confront our fears of environmental crisis: as Chicago and the Midwest have experienced life-threatening temperatures this winter that rival those of Mt. Everest and Antarctica, Bontecou’s unnatural flowers resonate with the palpable effects of climate change.

Lee Bontecou, Plate III from Fifth Stone, Sixth Stone (1967-68) (courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, © 2019 Lee Bontecou)

The exhibition’s standout is Bontecou’s illustrated book Fifth Stone, Sixth Stone (1967-68) in the final gallery. The artist teamed up with poet Tony Towle to describe her process in producing the lithographs of Fifth Stone (1963) and Sixth Stone (1964). Towle’s poetry presents descriptions of Bontecou’s daily routines, her lithographic process, and his own interpretations of her art. One memorable line that could be construed as a leitmotif of the exhibition reads, “There are no titles which would / limit the imagination.”

This thoughtfully curated exhibition at the Art Institute accommodates the capaciousness of Bontecou’s diverse art practice, which has for nearly five decades resisted classification and eluded the jargon of art criticism, while shedding much-deserved light on her extraordinary drawings and prints.

Into the Void: Prints of Lee Bontecou continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through May 5.

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