Two Artists Who Walked Away
Lee Bontecou at Knoedler & Company; Sarah G. Austin at Kimberly Venardos & Company
Lee Bontecou is back! Launched by Leo Castelli in the ‘60s, she catapulted to international attention within a decade. The only woman in Castelli’s stable, she shared the fast track with Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Limoucades lined up for Bontecou’s exhibitions until her last, in 1971. Then, abruptly, she turned and walked away. Her work has hardly been seen since.
Rumors flew around the motive for her legendary about-face: discontent with critical reception of her ‘71 show; desire to avoid competition with her husband Bill Giles, a less known artist; unease with the gallery scene and its packaging machinery. However complex the reasons, she withdrew with husband and daughter to a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. But she kept on working. Throughout these 30 years, Bontecou maintained her studio routine and taught sculpture and ceramics at Brooklyn College two days a week.
The harvest of Bontecou’s chosen obscurity is on view now at Knoedler. Thirty-seven untitled drawings, spanning three decades, inaugurate her return to visibility. And what a stunning return it is. Her medium is different (predominantly pencil instead of canvas over welded metal armatures) and the imagery more varied; but her preoccupations are identical. So is her radial organizing structure. Almost every drawing spirals around a central darksome aperture, as ominous and enigmatic as the mark of Cain.
The anger of her early sculpture, forged in the era of the Cuban missile crisis and the building of the Berlin Wall, is gone. But the crucial sense of menace persists. While the circumstances of ‘60s rage have passed, our own era brings new dreads. Bontecou’s imagery is as fresh today as it was forty years ago.
In the gallery, the first things that seize you are the intelligence and rigor of her invented iconography, counterpoised with the luminous refinement of her touch. Looking into these delicate, intricate forms, it is hard to believe they come from the same hand that wields an acetylene torch with such ferocious intent. Number 4, a graphite drawing from 1962, is quintessential Bontecou: a closeup of her characteristic chasm with its surrounding membranes, an intimation of obscure engulfing forces.
Number 5 explores the same central concavity. Blackened and velvety with soot, it first suggests a piece of architecture, a rotunda, perhaps, or an observatory. But the delineated structure turns in on itself and becomes simultaneously a gaping vortex. Between the sensitivity of the rendering and the oscillating spatial illusion, the image is hypnotic.
Bewitchment is everywhere. A number of casein, pastel or pencil drawings from the ‘80s nestle centripetal force in wave-like shapes that arch and flow with the expressive precision of Hokusai. Yet at the center of each spins the ineluctable helix that pulls everything into itself, swallowing energy and generating it at the same time.
Forbidding cavities are constants in her work. Only the allusions shift, from the zoömorphic and botanical to the astronomical and visionary. Science fiction types will swear they have met these interstellar bodies before: on Ursula le Guin’s 4th planet of Altair or in the somber interstices of Philip Dick’s mind. Gentler imaginations can find flowers, eclipses, insects eyes, cloud or landscape forms. Art history buffs will spot Surrealist forebears.
What holds this suggestive fecundity together, making it recognizably and immutably hers, is the ethereal grace of her pencil and the particularity of her inventions. These are precise, dimensional and rational images in service of a logic that defies all categorization. Bontecou’s genius outwits nomenclature and taxonomic pigeonholes.
Throughout the ‘60s, ideologues of the Women’s Art movement joined vulgar Freudians in trying to claim her imagery for themselves. References to “vagina dentata” abounded. Sophisticates quoted French essayist George Bataille’s “solar anus.” Early on, Dore Ashton tried to bring sanity to the classification game by rejecting all sexual analogies. In a ‘62 essay, she insisted that Bontecou’s signature cavities were most plausible as signs of destruction, like the barrel of a gun. Elizabeth A.T. Smith, curator at MOCA, Los Angeles, and original organizer of this exhibition, quotes poet John Ashberry’s dismissal of critical fixations on sexuality: “It is hard to feel very erotic about something that looks like the inside of a very old and broken-down-air-conditioning unit.”
The sex-death-and-degradation crowd that claims descent from Bontecou’s work will have to revise their bios after this exhibition. It swats them like flies on the verandah.
In its entirety, the work bears witness to that disinterested commitment to a chosen course, without regard to market trends, that is an artist’s decisive evidence (as an artist) of moral conviction. Bontecou has set her own standards and stayed faithful to them. Her reemergence brings with it an unintended rebuke to the circus of contemporary image mongering.
This exhibition is adjunct to a full-scale retrospective of her work that opened at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, traveled to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and is on its way to the Museum of Modern Art in Queens this summer. I am counting the weeks. The last time I saw one of Bontecou’s wall reliefs, it was tucked along a corridor in the acoustic-tiled basement of Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate. Any day now, a member of the clan should be moving it upstairs to a more prominent position. Lee Bontecou is here to stay.
Secluded treasure of another kind is on the walls at Kimberly Venardos. Sarah Austin is a name few people outside the museum world have heard of. Her father was Chuck Austin, director of the Wadsworth Atheneum from 1927 to 1944 and one of the twentieth century's most progressive museum administrators. Young Sarah inhabited the whirl of her father’s enthusiasms: from Italian baroque painting to Cubism, Surrealism and Modernism in all its manifestations, including music, movies, photography and dance.
Austin inherited her father’s passions and his flair for presentation. She spent a life creating sophisticated, witty, frequently motorized Cornellian shadow boxes, each one a retable for the patron saints of twentieth century art. Artists, composers, writers and auteurs appear in contexts intuitively evocative of their own creations: Picasso, Ersnt, Mondrian, James Joyce, Ingmar Bergman, Braque, Mary McCarthy, Jackson Pollack, others.
Duchamp, for example, is glimpsed through a tiny version of his own miniature French window of 1920, “Fresh Widow.” Within, a sequential, staccato image of him descends a staircase, miming his celebrated nude in the 1913 Armory Show. In another construction, a photograph of Duchamp at a chess board appears behind actual chess pieces. The image is spintered, distorted by the glass bricks through which it is viewed. Another “explosion in a shingle factory.”
Austin had the resources and connections to make the boxes public but refused. She neither spoke nor wrote about her constructions, a secret museum expanding with the years. An exceedingly private woman, she cloistered her work, not permitting it to be exhibited until three years before her death in 1994. If only this gifted woman had been less modest. It is a wonder we have this exhibition at all. The work is a virtuoso’s delight that has waited too long for an audience. It deserves to be seen.
“Lee Bontecou: Drawings from 1958 to 1999” at Knoedler & Company (19 East 70 Street, 212.794.0550).
“Sarah G. Austin: Assemblages” at Kimberly Venardos (1014 Madison Avenue at 78 Street, 212.879.5858).
A version of this essay appeared in The New York Sun, May 20, 2004.
©2004 Maureen Mullarkey