Lee Bontecou: Drawn Worlds

American artist Lee Bontecou established a significant reputation in the 1960s with her pioneering sculptures made of raw and expressionistic materials. Though she is best known for her three-dimensional work, drawing has always been an equally important component of her artistic practice. This summer, the Princeton University Art Museum will host Lee Bontecou: Drawn Worlds, organized by the Menil Collection, where it premiered in January 2014. The exhibition brings together a selection of works on paper from the artist’s more than fifty-year career, from early soot drawings created with a welding torch to recent works in graphite and colored pencil. Calling her drawings “worldscapes,” Bontecou has produced an incredible body of work that propels us into fantastic spaces and strange terrains.

Lee Bontecou (American, born 1931), Untitled, 1963. Graphite and soot on circular-shaped stretched muslin, 207.7 x 196 cm. Museum purchase, Laura P. Hall Memorial Fund. © 2014 Lee Bontecou / photo: Bruce M. WhiteBontecou understands drawing as a process of discovery, a place to solve problems, and a means to explore the imagination. While she plans and experiments on paper in anticipation of constructing her sculptural forms, there is not always a traditional progression in her process from drawing, as foundational step, to sculpture, as final outcome. Bontecou often goes back and forth between three and two dimensions, and there is not necessarily a clear point of origin for an idea or an image. And though many of her drawings are formally intertwined with her sculptures, they ultimately stand on their own as works in and of themselves. In them, the artist employs, even relishes, methods unique to the medium, revealing her deeply pleasure-full and tactile approach, as well as the great care she places in the art of drafting.

The variety of drawing techniques Bontecou employs is extraordinary. She achieves slick surfaces by working on plastic or by prepping paper supports with gesso, leading to smooth passages of graphite. There are bold, repetitious, and impressionistic marks inspired by her love of drawings by Vincent van Gogh; stratified bands of hatched lines; areas of reworked surfaces where an eraser has worn down the grain of the paper’s weave; and precise marks made with a thin lead tip that are matched by broad swaths of dusty blacks. In Bontecou’s works on black paper, light reflects off silvery pencil lines, causing them to softly appear and disappear. The artist renders some of her drawings by pushing her fingertips into the soot, leaving feathery prints. For others, she scrapes into the black with a knife for an inverse effect, dispersing the dark pigment with the sharp blade.Lee Bontecou (American, born 1931), Untitled, 1982. Colored pencil on colored paper, 60.9 x 91.4 cm. Collection of the artist. © 2014 Lee Bontecou / photo: Paul Hester

One of Bontecou’s most innovative approaches to material involves the use of soot. While in Rome on a Fulbright scholarship in the late 1950s, she discovered that she could use a welding torch to draw. Turning off the oxygen to an oxyacetylene torch, she deployed only an acetylene flame, which has such a low temperature that it does not set the paper on fire. The acetylene flame also produces more soot, and Bontecou realized that, by moving the torch back and forth or blowing the flame from below the paper, she could spray the carbon-based powder and incrementally build up layers in gradated bands. The sweeping gestures created modulated tones, like those made by a commercial airbrush. With its seductive, velvety presence and illusion of depth, the black soot generated a world of its own.

The content, or imagery, in Bontecou’s drawings is as crucial as her technique. In contrast to those of many artists of her generation, her marks rarely sit on the surface as themselves; they are not discrete, autonomous, or autographic, nor are they meant to be read only as a mark made by the artist. Instead, Bontecou creates imaginary spaces by using the paper or muslin support as an entrée into another realm and insistently puts her marks in the service of description. Often using framing devices—lines, halos of graphite and soot, and hazy rectangles and spheres that fall just within the perimeter of the paper—Bontecou pulls the viewer into the miniature universes of her drawings.

Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 2011. Graphite on handmade paper, 76 x 111.8 cm. Collection of the artist. © 2013 Lee Bontecou / photo: Paul HesterCertain images reflect her fascination with and deep reverence for the natural world, which she sets alongside, or merges with, representations of human futility related to technological and scientific progress. Model airplanes, sharp teeth, billowing sails, avian skulls, crab shells, saw blades, submarines, flowers, vertebrae, fish, prison bars, black holes, and aeronautical and automotive parts are among the images that comingle in her compositions.

The void is one of the most important images that reoccurs throughout Bontecou’s work. It appears as an anthropomorphic black hole; a sphere with teeth, eyeballs, and eyelashes; or a portal to dark worlds. It is an unlikely anchor, with sails billowing from its core; an orb of light; or a sun rising over the horizon. Shifting between depictions of empty space and representations of things that are of the world, the artist’s void embodies death and absence but also becomes a generative space, holding potential for creation. The evolution of the void in Bontecou’s drawings is traced in one of her more recent works, Untitled (2011). In it, a grid of voids reads like an index to the motif as it has appeared over the course of five decades.

Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1982. Casein on wood, 30.5 x 38.1 cm. Collection of the artist. © 2013 Lee Bontecou / photo: Paul HesterThe void is by no means the only subject that consistently reappears in her drawings. A retrospective study reveals fascinating repetitions that are overtly political in their leanings. They can be read contextually, from the era of the Cold War and the birth of the environmental movement to today, as natural and mechanized disasters increase in frequency. Writing in 1963, Bontecou expressed the aspiration that her work could offer the chance “to glimpse some of the fear, hope, ugliness, and beauty that exists in all of us and which hangs over all the young people today.” More recently, she has addressed the paradox of formal beauty and difficult content by contemplating a stealth bomber. She said of the awesome war machine, “It’s a beautiful thing up in the air, a piece of sculpture! But what it does is horror.”

Emerging from the agitated cultural backdrop that defined the post–World War II era, Bontecou’s drawings grapple with a broad range of concerns that her generation confronted while coming of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s: the reverberations of the Holocaust; the seeming expansion of the heavens as space exploration became a reality; apocalyptic Cold War fears of nuclear or toxic demise; and budding environmental fatalism. Yet such cultural and ecological themes are entirely contemporary; the preoccupation with disaster and instability pointedly speaks to the tenor of our time. Bontecou’s works prophetically assert how a conventional approach to drawing—as both a window onto the world and a direct entryway to the inner realm of the artist’s imagination—can help us negotiate our changing and increasingly fragile place in a universe that is as stunning and awesome as it is terrifying and piteous.

Michelle White
Curator, The Menil Collection