Lee Bontecou Untitled 1961

  • MoMA, Floor 4, 408 The David Geffen Wing

To make this work, Bontecou took canvas from conveyor belts discarded by a laundry below her East Village apartment, and stretched the pieces across a steel armature. Untitled straddles the lines between painting and sculpture, mechanical and organic, and inviting and threatening. The void at the center reflects an intense anxiety, if we consider that the artist made this sculpture during a pivotal year: the Bay of Pigs Invasion in Cuba had failed, the United States had committed its first troops to Vietnam, and the construction of the Berlin Wall had begun. She wrote, “My concern is to build things that express our relation to this country . . . to other worlds to glimpse some of the fear, hope, ugliness, beauty, and mystery that exists in us all and which hangs over all the young people today.”

Gallery label from "Collection 1940s—1970s", 2019
Additional text

Painting or sculpture? Organic or industrial? Invitation or threat? This untitled work is a rectangle of canvas, like a painting, but one that pushes its faceted, equivocally machinelike mouth out from the wall. Many have seen in Bontecou’s works of this kind, with their built-up rims and hollow voids, the nacelles or casings of jet engines. The artist, too, has acknowledged their influence: “Airplanes at one time, jets mainly,” she said, in answer to an interviewer’s question about the inspiration for her work. Interest in the streamlined products of modernity may link Bontecou to Pop art, a movement that was developing in the early 1960s, but her work’s dark and restricted palette gives it a sobriety distant from much of Pop, and she describes the world more obliquely. Also, instead of replicating an engine’s metallic surfaces, she has stitched panels of canvas over a steel skeleton. If this is a machine, it is a soft one—which, again, leads many to think of the body and its charged interiors and openings.

Mystery is one quality Bontecou is interested in, as well as “fear, hope, ugliness, beauty.” As for those inky cavities, a consistent theme, she has remarked, “I like space that never stops. Black is like that. Holes and boxes mean secrets and shelter.”

Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Welded steel, canvas, fabric, rawhide, copper wire, and soot
6' 8 1/4" x 7' 5" x 34 3/4" (203.6 x 226 x 88 cm)
Kay Sage Tanguy Fund
Object number
© 2024 Lee Bontecou
Painting and Sculpture

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