New York

Lee Bontecou

Knoedler & Company

Lee Bontecou achieved success in the early 1960s with shaped paintings and wall-mounted assemblages that hovered on the edge of figuration, vaguely suggesting bodies, buildings, and machines. Though resistant to narrative, the works’ telescoping elements lend them an aggressive feel, while their orifices seem to suggest a secret, subcutaneous functionality. Shreds of canvas tied to welded steel armatures, some incorporating menacing, mouthlike saw blades, transcend the aesthetic of impoverishment as a purely formal device to suggest pathologies of the unknown, war, and death. A ongoing sequence of drawings of gas masks, begun in 1961, complements this bleak vision.

By the late ’60s, Bontecou’s latent references to hybrid natural-artificial forms had effloresced into sculptures and drawings of fish and flowers, and it was a selection of these works (some of which were first exhibited at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1971) that comprised her recent exhibition. The sculptures are made of vacuum-formed plastic, but their delicate transparency does not mitigate a certain threatening aspect. In the floral forms, the image of the gas mask is also still apparent. They may have a pearly flow, but these aren’t dainty blossoms; rather, their mechanical mien suggests stylized weapons or hostile alien life forms.

The strange beauty of the flower sculptures, with their tendrils of plastic tubing and ruffles of polished petals, is enhanced by the feeling that at any second they might spring to life. A similar potential seems to imbue the fish sculptures, which range from a few inches to over five feet long. Swimming suspended in the air or perched on small acrylic bases, they are models of meticulous craftsmanship. Equipped with rows of razor-sharp teeth and large fins, their predatory tendencies are evident—even exaggerated. The same associations are evident in a group of drawings in graphite, colored pencil, and white charcoal on black paper. An untitled white charcoal sketch from 1969, for example, depicts a fantastic landscape dotted with enormous, menacingly stylized flowers.

These works, together with others based on shapes drawn from insects and seashells, had to wait more than three decades to find acceptance. The poor critical reception they received on their debut coincided with Bontecou’s decision to withdraw from the New York scene. (She eschewed it for more than thirty years.) Today, the artist’s surreal biomorphic menagerie finds numerous parallels, from Keith Edmier’s reproductions of exotic plants, to Alexis Rockman’s mutant creatures and futuristic landscapes, to the imagery of computer games and cinematic CGI.

Despite the fact that it occurred decades ago, the debate about Bontecou’s figurative turn has thus really only just begun. Her unique hybrids—with their vaguely militaristic connotations and psychedelic visual impact—are marked by a subtle melancholy and still brim with referential potential.

Jan Avgikos