Very few people have ever seen more than a single Lee Bontecou sculpture at a time. Most American museums have one, and they're easy to spot: furious spirals of welded steel, saw teeth, wire and canvas coiling around a large black void, like a tornado that offers up its insides.
Throughout the 1960s Bontecou was one of the most successful artists of her generation. As the lone woman among an all-male peer group at the Art Students League (where she studied sculpture) and at the Leo Castelli Gallery (which represented her) she seemed to defy gender, both in her artistic progress and in her choice of artistic process, as a sculptor and welder.
Bontecou's signature works, made between 1959 and 1967, are highly expressive wall-mounted constructions fashioned from heavy, cantankerous materials. She began with a metal frame and built outwards, incorporating industrial textiles and machine parts to create structures that often culminate in a large hole, or a series of compartments that balance emptiness with fullness and blackness with light.
Such original constructions were much admired by the Minimalists, in particular Donald Judd, whose reviews of her earliest shows have attained the status of classic texts. During the 1970s feminist artists such as Judy Chicago and critics such as Lucy Lippard championed Bontecou's imagery as reflecting their theories on women's art - the once empowering, now discarded theory of central-core imagery. As it turned out, they weren't the only ones; the artist's preoccupation with the void was frequently misconstrued by female and male critics alike as mouths, vaginas or, worse yet, a combination of the two as a Freudian vagina dentata.
While Bontecou rightly rejected such interpretations as reductive, the larger idea remains. Given their mass and scale, her sculptures strongly reference the body, are inward to the point of being hermetic, and resistant to interpretation much beyond their awe-inspiring physicality. Nonetheless, Bontecou's works (all of which are untitled) cannot be understood simply on their own terms.
In this first retrospective of her work (co-organized by the UCLA Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago) curator Elizabeth Smith, in association with Ann Philbin, rescues Bontecou's constructions from their autonomous status. In this context of nearly 80 drawings, preparatory sketches, prints, early assemblages and 55 sculptures, eight years of production suddenly weighs differently. Seen together, Bontecou's employment of the void is infinitely more flexible, evoking the abstracted eye sockets and nostrils of World War II-era helmets and gas masks, as well as the iconic imagery of atomic mushroom clouds. Alongside the void pieces, there are three beautiful cocoon-like constructions from 1967 that are much smaller in scale than anything else at the time. Intricate pods of yellow silk and balsa wood that hang from a steel frame, they seem to exist as a bridge between Bontecou's early and later works. Her drawings throughout the 1970s and 1980s generate a cosmic twist, with coloured pencil and white charcoal suggesting black holes, galaxies, eyeballs and the sun. Others are infused with nautica, waves, and marine life such as fish, crabs, birds, and insects.
But it is the late sculptural works that shine. Spanning the period from 1980 to the present, they are among the most powerful and least considered works here. Compared to the four or so other rooms of 1960s work, they merit only one room within the exhibition, and a crowded one at that - an installation that comes across as an utter lack of faith. Although these fantastical mobile and table-top structures are made from Bontecou's standard materials (steel, wire and fabric), they are lighter in mood. Suspended from the ceiling, the mobiles look like insular solar systems, with delicate porcelain discs threaded as carefully as beads.
It is tempting to associate Bontecou's art with that of other female artists of her generation: Magdalena Abakanowicz' works from the late 1960s, for example, whose gigantic, densely woven structures, known as 'Abakans', were also constructed around a central orifice. Even closer to home is Beverly Pepper, whose career most closely parallels Bontecou's. A welder and sculptor, Pepper studied at the Art Students League, ten years before Bontecou, spent time in Rome and showed with the Marlborough Gallery in London throughout the 1960s. Neither artist is mentioned in the catalogue - Bontecou is resituated within an all-male canon, except for some scant references to Eva Hesse.
In recent years there has been keen interest among curators in re-evaluating neglected artists, women in particular such as Jay DeFeo, Hesse, Lee Krasner and Alice Neel; artists whose estates have previously been uncooperative (Diane Arbus, Lygia Clark); or, in the case of Bontecou, who have themselves been uncooperative. Of all these shows this is the only one in which the artist is alive to see the exhibition installed.
The trap for any exhibition of a woman's career is the tendency to reduce it to biography. One of the worst examples of this was the Lee Krasner retrospective curated by Robert Hobbs at the Brooklyn Museum in 2000 - every wall label and essay read the artist's work through her association with Jackson Pollock. While this exhibition and Smith's catalogue happily limit the focus on Bontecou's life, the media blitz surrounding the show has only heightened the mythology of her 'disappearance' - the moment when, in the 1970s, at the peak of her career, Bontecou retreated from the art world, even though she
never actually left. She continues to make art, and taught at Brooklyn College, one borough away from Manhattan, just across the bridge, until 1991.