Monday, November 12, 2012

The Depth of One's Soul : Prints by Lee Bontecou

Lee Bontecou is most recognized for her impressive multi-media 3-D constructions that are often installed onto walls. "My most persistently recurring thought is to work in a scope as far-reaching as possible," she wrote early in her career, "to express a feeling of freedom in all its necessary ramifications—its awe, beauty, magnitude, horror and baseness." 

In the 1970s,Feminism was coming down the next art movement path, but Bontecou didn't embrace it or its politizing schemas. The feminists saw Lee's work as heroic. They saw her crevices and deep spaces as a symbolic form of vaginal imagery, but that wasn't a part of her ideology at all.She did her work independently and has chosen to be true to herself and her own inner timing; so much so that she has preferred to work in relative obscurity for the last couple of decades, developing her craft, and exploring her ideas away from the galleries and museums that would willingly exhibit her work. 

I will say that my first exposure to seeing actual Bontecou prints was when I did an internship at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Prints and Drawing department was putting together a catalogue raisonne from its vast collections of Gemini G.E.L. archives, which included Bontecou's work. I saw firsthand the scale of her lithographs and the depth of her black on black images. Their minimalism was apparent and they spoke to an aesthetic not unlike Mark Rothko's. It wasn't until years later that I saw and was blown away by her mixed media pieces.  Now that I have had time to reflect upon seeing those images again, my gut feelings about her prints are the same, but being more informed, I can see another level of her working process.

Bontecou's menacingly industrial/mechanical constructions have consisted of welded metal frames with recycled canvas and found objects. They appear simple and organic in spite of themselves, and her prints moreso. Her prints are in many respects much simplified compared with the constructions. She tends to work in two veins: one owes homage to the Mattas and Gorkys of the world via a sort of surrealistic internal/cosmic space with waves, orbs and planet-looking objected layered in an infinite depth, while the second aligns itself more toward an Modernist tradition established in the works of Arthur Dove and Georgia O'keefe. While Bontecou's constructions are ambitious and fascinating, her prints radiate flashes of her constructions, but they are also quiet and deeply introspective.

Bontecou's prints deny a lot of the surface that her 3-D work are obsessively concerned with. It appears she's chosen deliberately to deny us the sensual pleasures as found in her 3-D work by working strictly flat. The lithograph's planographic nature will not allow us the same sensory delight.  I will confess that when I first viewed her prints, I didn't care for them. They seemed almost too straightforwardly minimal. But upon closer inspection, I see now the spiritual, transcendental side of them. I see also from her more 'drawn' images how Bontecou is working out the structure of her 'innerscapes', where things fit. 

Bontecou makes clear choices to simplify her drawings and prints. She's decided just how much is necessary for us to see of her cosmic worlds, just as a Chinese painter will isolate a fraction of a panoramic landscape to show us the most beautiful part, Bontecou is showing us the most important parts of her universe. Some of her later works are simply elegant, and for me evoke a oneness with one's essential core. The orbs and symbolic 'O' pieces are like portals to a deep place within ourselves and our souls. The viewer is not made to feel worried or anxious about the depth and richness of her black Os. They are a place for one to dive into willing, to explore what is beyond our sights and find our own inner peace. I am encouraged by Bontecou's spareness in these prints to do what we cannot with her constructions. Those pieces' tactility gets in the way of our ability to really fall into them, move through them. They leave the impression that if we stand too close to them we'll be sucked into a worm hole across the universe. Bontecou's prints let us make the decision to dive into her pieces. We decide, and that is as it should be.

Lee Bontecou was born in Providence, RI in 1931. From 1952-1955 Bontecou went to New York to study at the Art Students League.   She went to Rome on a Fulbright Scholarship between 1957-1958. She commuted between Pennsylvania and New York to teach at Brooklyn College. After fifteen years there she retired in 1991 and moved permanently to Orisbonia, PA. where she has continued to mostly work in seclusion.  After her marriage in 1967 to William Giles, and the birth of her daughter, she restricted herself largely to drawing and printmaking. After decades of self-imposed isolation, she came back into the public’s attention with a 2003 retrospective co-organized by the Hammer Museumin Los Angeles and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago which traveled to the MOMA in 2004. Bontecou's work was also included in the prestigious 2004-2005 Carnegie International exhibit in Pittsburgh.

Commission for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York,1964
National Institute of Arts and Letters – First Prize award, 1966

Public Collections:
TheCleveland MUseum of Art, Cleveland, OH
Brown University, Providence, RI
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
theNational Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Walker Art Center,  Minneapolis, MN
Whitney Museum of American Art, NY

Included in three Whitney Museum annuals
2004, 2010 - Museum of Modern Art retrospectives
1963 - "Americans” - Museum of Modern Art
1961 - "The Art of Assemblage" – Museum of Modern Art
Articles in Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Life 

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