Water Mill

Lee Bontecou

Lee Bontecou’s work was prominent in the ’60s, before she withdrew from artmaking and career promotion. Characteristically, she did not come to see this retrospective, either in the Museum of Contemporary art in Los Angeles, where it originated, or in Southampton.

This small show, comprised mostly of wall sculptures, was arresting and immediately satisfying in the way that art used to strive to be. Constructions of olive-green fabric stretched over wooden armatures and stitched with copper wires incorporated circular mounds in loose spirallike arrays that radiated both motion and serenity, a sense of oceanic surging that nevertheless had focus and coherence. These evocative forms sometimes accumulated in minicities of organic, prepatriarchal, hivelike architecture, at other times formed a machinery of complicated lenses and filters. In the manner of successful works of late-’50s and -’60s esthetic art, the works have a formal completeness and a friendly presence that is reassuring but never sentimental.

These are not purely esthetic works, however. The archetypal quality of these emblematic configurations links them to the often unacknowledged iconography of Abstract Expressionist and post-Abstract Expressionist works from Jackson Pollock to Jasper Johns. Bontecou’s work is typically characterized by a male/female dichotomy or a certain bi-morphism. The rounded, earth-goddess shapes mounded upon one another cast the female as nourishing and earthlike. This message is offset, however, by its imbrication with its Jungian Other (what used to be called male aggression) evoked by the associations of the military fabric stitched with wire, the incorporated gas masks, the look of combat and weaponry. The underlying message, only slightly hidden and common enough in the late ’50s and ’60s, is that nature or the cosmos is made up of bipolar male and female forces locked together in somethingmore like dialectical opposition than sexual union but involving both: in combat and loving it. They’re sort of troubled or uneasy lingam-and-yoni icons, remarkably balanced for Cold War art, but hiddenly dualistic nonetheless. These pieces have an almost ancient quality to them—the aura of exquisite objects from a now seemingly classical era.

Thomas McEvilley