Twice in my lifetime, a museum exhibition threw me into turmoil. The first time, it was the Max Beckmann Retrospective at LACMA eighteen years ago, which I simply hated. It made me so uncomfortable, I went to see it again and again, obsessed with a desire to understand why it held such sway over me. Luckily, the uncompromising ugly beauty of Beckmann's artistic vision revealed itself to me at last. It was sort of a breakthrough. Now I count Beckmann among the great artists of the 20th century.
Going to UCLA Hammer Museum, to see a groundbreaking exhibition of the famously reclusive Lee Bontecou, was the second and most recent occasion when I got overwhelmed, exhausted and, to be completely honest with you, quite scared by the aggressive energy of someone's art. The coarse and dirty-looking patches of canvas of her wall reliefs are forced into coexistence through a very unladylike stitching made with copper wire sticking out violently. Makes you think about the scars of the monsters in Frankenstein movies, or the clanking vehicles made of scrap parts in Mad Max movies.
After her legendary first show at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1960, Lee Bontecou's art was widely shown, admired and written about. Then, ten years later, critics lambasted her 1971 exhibition, which resulted in the artist's withdrawal from public life for the next 30 years. Reportedly, the Hammer retrospective of her works came about only as a result of much persuasion and cajoling. The artist was reluctant to show her art to the public. Luckily for us, Lee Bontecou overcame her fears.
When I saw her exhibition a second time, I was less frightened by the beastly energy of her art. Once again, I quickly passed over her expertly executed drawings with their slightly tired surrealist imagery. What pulled me in were her reliefs protruding aggressively from the gallery walls. I read that the artist hated the sexual interpretations of her works persisting among many admirers of her art to this day. Count me among them.
Primordial terror of castration, like a heavy aroma, clings to her early, deservedly most famous works. Their black gaping holes, armored with zipper-like metal teeth, don't necessarily put you in a mellow mood. Then comes a room will neither-here-nor-there plastic sculptures of mutant flowers and fish that, thirty years ago, left many critics so under-whelmed. Sad to say that 30 years later these works still look to me unconvincing and kind of lost in space.
But the good news is that the last decade was very good for Lee Bontecou's art. She continues to be prolific, but the apocalyptic vision of her early work gave way to more relaxed, almost lyrical sculptural compositions, consisting of many small parts strung on wires, like the notes of a musical score. I wouldn't be surprised if some clever musician finds a way to play the cosmic tune encoded in Lee Bontecou's latest works.
October 5, 2003 - January 11, 2004
UCLA Hammer Museum
10899 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90024