Lee Bontecou is among one of my favorite artists (along with Francis Bacon and Chaim Soutine) whose works explore and evoke darker themes. Except unlike the other two, Bontecou’s work stands out for its painstaking physical construction and also for the fact that she was a woman working in the 1960’s art world. Bontecou’s wall pieces often utilize materials such as steel, canvas, and rope, and are meticulously crafted to create dystopic 3D sculptures that play with light and shadow, and which explore the tensions between modernism, futurism, and decay. Patches of canvas are stretched taut and stitched together on an intricately melded steel frame that changes the viewing experience from each new angle. The use of dark space in many of her works grounds the piece and is often the foci, a sharp difference from the use of detail or color to bring a viewer’s attention to a particular area. This piece, Untitled, 1961 (1961), is from the Whitney Museum of American Art.
What I love (and find wonderfully subversive) about her work is that its not made for mass consumption, and that its impossible to appreciate at a place like MOMA where you’re always being shepherded through like cattle. To really experience a Bontecou piece you have to be able to see it from all sides, and then after you work up the courage to approach it, to stare into and confront the dark abyss she’s created. When you’re standing in front of Untitled, with your head being engulfed by the black hole you can’t help but feel alone in the vast emptiness. The piece forces you to confront your feelings about the great unknown and our entrenched associations of darkness–an adrenalin-inducing mixture of fear and excitement.
Oh, and she also makes drawings and mind-blowing mobiles that look like exploding universes frozen in time. Whoa!