Los Angeles

Lee Bontecou, Untitled, ca. 1982–87, graphite on graph paper, 8 1⁄2 × 11".

Lee Bontecou, Untitled, ca. 1982–87, graphite on graph paper, 8 1⁄2 × 11".

Lee Bontecou

Although Lee Bontecou remains better known for her sculptures—such as the bulbous, seamed, and multipaneled wall reliefs organized around a central cavity, or the chitinous insectoid objects that hang from ceilings—her career-spanning works on paper have generated due attention in the past few years, most notably in the 2014 exhibition “Lee Bontecou: Drawn Worlds” at Houston’s Menil Collection, curated by Michelle White. The Menil show spanned fifty years and presented drawings done in soot—a welding-torch by-product the artist discovered while on a Fulbright Fellowship in Rome in 1957 and used to create her sculptures—along with those done in graphite and colored pencil. Marc Selwyn’s focused presentation of work from the 1980s put forth nine letter-size drawings on graph paper that had never been seen outside of the artist’s studio. The images were collected under the title “A Constellation of Drawings 1982–1987,” in reference to painter Joan Banach’s description of them as “constellation drawings.” Despite their summoning of the cosmos, these pieces nevertheless hold the surface, eschewing an extension into deeper pictorial space. One exception is a rendering of a vortex (all works Untitled, ca. 1982–87), which features hatched, eyelash-like lines radiating from a nautilus juxtaposed with a horizontal band of sloping hills.

The graphs frame webs of interconnections among otherwise discrete figures—lines connect the dots between various components, bringing them into alignment. If the matrix underpinning the drawings has served elsewhere as a modernist emblem, here it is just a ready-made pattern that offers no meaningful connection to the images variously disposed upon these grounds. Compositions are both vertical and horizontal, coaxing anthropomorphic possibilities out of unassuming geometries. One depicts a bird, its wings spread in anticipation of flight; in another we see some kind of avian-machinic hybrid, which recalls Bontecou’s broader explorations of movement in model airplanes and sails and the ways she incorporates aeronautical parts into her sculptures. Most shapes tend to the creaturely, intimated or matter-of-fact, as we see in the particulars of an open beak, the scrupulous rendering of attenuated feathers, or the insertion of teeth into a swelling mouth that resembles the body of maybe a crab, its bilaterally symmetrical eyes crowning what, in a semiotic game, is also legible as a head. Elsewhere, heads exist free of bodies, still sprouting from sockets or pinned circuits. In one case, a thorned stalk sits where the orb indicates a floral bulb, further evoking the artist’s vacuum-formed plastic flower shapes of the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Like a cast of Ovidian protagonists, these would-be beings are self-consciously changing as they come into themselves. This is due in part to Bontecou’s exquisite style of rendering, which is full of minute details—one senses the artist is also narrating her own kinetic and interior process while she’s in the act of psychically glimpsing her forms. Her approach is an embrace of action, or of energy manifestly coinciding with the articulation of line as graphite crosses the sheet and takes shape and then takes another, or holds out the possibility that it could. To this point of suspension, the Menil show also made clear the extent to which drawing for the artist might but does not necessarily function as a preparatory act for something to be produced in another medium. These pieces, created in rural Pennsylvania (Bontecou had long since decamped from New York), also seem contained while containing keys to past iconography and themes—most obviously the imbrication of the organic and the industrial, insects and satellites, and much else. They also bear affinities to her 1980s hanging metal sculptures—accumulations of sharp parts swirling around an anchoring sphere that could be an oculus or a planet set against the white expanse of a gallery’s wall. Back on the squared paper, the vitality of world-making remains.