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Taking art to a higher level

Sculptor Lee Bontecou's profound exhibit at the UCLA Hammer is born from her 'classics.'

October 07, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Some art museum exhibitions come loaded with enormous expectations. None in recent memory has been larger than those accompanying "Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective," which opened Sunday at the UCLA Hammer Museum.

Bontecou is an extraordinarily gifted sculptor who, in the early 1970s, walked away from a flourishing career -- one that is difficult enough for any artist to achieve, but one that was even harder for a woman in her day. Following a small 1977 retrospective at a college gallery in Upstate New York, which focused on her classic relief sculptures, she chose not to exhibit a substantive body of new work again. The Hammer retrospective is thus eagerly anticipated on two counts.

First, it offers the fullest accounting to date of the pivotal reliefs in welded steel, rough canvas and twisted wire that Bontecou made in New York beginning in 1959. And, it unveils for the first time and in considerable depth the work she has been making in her rural Pennsylvania studio for the last 26 years.

On both counts the show not only meets expectations -- it actually exceeds them.

There was no doubt that the survey of Bontecou's early phase would be a joy. In 1993, L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art organized a small but absorbing presentation of 10 reliefs and about a dozen drawings from the 1960s. Its success was the catalyst for widely renewed interest in the long-gone artist's work.

MOCA curator Elizabeth A.T. Smith, now at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, went on to initiate the current retrospective, and she worked with Hammer director Ann Philbin to organize a national tour. (The show, after moving on to Chicago in February, will conclude next summer at New York's Museum of Modern Art.) The largest complement of sculptures and drawings on view dates from the fecund early period between 1959 and 1967, when Bontecou made her first indelible contribution to art.

But what of the more recent work, which is having its public debut now? Bontecou's last solo show three decades ago at Leo Castelli Gallery focused on vacuum-formed plastic sculptures of fish suspended from the ceiling and mutant-looking flowers standing upright on pedestals; it was not well-received. A selection of both is included here. While their significance in the transition toward what was to come is plain, as independent sculptures they haven't improved with age.

However, Bontecou's new work turns out to be fully of a piece with her "classics" of the 1960s -- in ambition and achievement as well as in their astonishing level of formal invention. With its shimmering evanescence, the recent sculpture does not look like the old, but it is born of it in ways profound and moving.

The earliest sculptures on view hardly predict such future glory. Bronze and terra cotta figures of wild animals -- totemic, foreboding and pedestal-bound -- they are post-World War II versions of a 19th century European tradition of animalier sculpture. Critic Robert Storr, writing in the show's generally excellent catalog, aptly describes the widespread genre in the 1950s as "the Aesop's Fables school of nuclear age apocalyptics." Common among such minor artists of the preceding generation (Bontecou was born in 1931) as Italy's Marino Marini, Poland's Theodore Roszak and France's Germaine Richier, as well as Bontecou's English contemporary, Elizabeth Frink, it was modern sculpture's clumsy answer to the liberating aesthetic of Abstract Expressionist painting.

In 1959, though, freshly back from two years spent studying in Rome, Bontecou transformed her work. If you crossed the lush organic blossom of a floribunda rose with the ferocious carapace of a brute engine on an F-14 fighter jet, you might end up with something in the ballpark Bontecou began to play in.

Scraps of coarse tarpaulin, old military fatigues and even lengths of fire hose are stitched with bits of sharp copper wire onto welded armatures of steel. They are built up in organic mounds and curves, like an aerial view of topography. Hung on the wall, the large, grim reliefs seem almost like paintings that have been subjected to fierce internal pressures, until they swelled, erupted and split wide open.

Across the surface, volcano-like cones backed in black velvet or industrial soot open physically shallow tunnels of visually deep space. These confounding configurations -- thrusting voids -- are stunningly sexual abstractions. And the occasional additions of band saw "teeth" make them no less aggressively riveting.

As images, Bontecou's powerful reliefs seem to contain all the personal and public conflicts of their tumultuous Cold War era. In a famous review reprinted in the catalog, sculptor Donald Judd described them as encompassing "something as social as war" and "something as private as sex, making one an aspect of the other."

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