Lee Bontecou



Not on display

Lee Bontecou born 1931
Graphite on paper
Support: 686 × 997 mm
frame: 798 × 1089 × 38 mm
Presented by Leo Castelli 1962


Drawing is a large, horizontally oriented graphite drawing that features an abstract, monochrome composition. The overall organisation of the composition is suggestive of a spiral of shapes – curves, circles, ovals and long, pointed streaks – that emanate from a central structure made up of broken semicircles. The various shapes form an irregular cluster in the middle of the composition, as if suspended in the field of white paper. Dark streaks and dots break away from the central mass towards the right side of the composition, while the left features concentric curves that reach towards the edge of the paper. The mechanical, inorganic appearance of some of the shapes is mitigated by softer sweeps of graphite and smudges made by the artist’s finger.

This work was made by the American artist Lee Bontecou in New York in 1961. Working in the city at this time, Bontecou was influenced by earlier generations of abstract expressionist artists, as well as the surrealists. However, the found objects and assemblage techniques commonly found in her work have resonances with pop artists also working in New York during the 1960s, including Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Niki de Saint-Phalle and Jean Follett.

The general title Drawing resists specific meaning, and as with much of Bontecou’s work viewers may infer different readings through their particular recognition of the objects and shapes portrayed. As the art historian Jo Applin has argued, the tussle between abstraction and representation in Bontecou’s drawings can be seen as a marker of the artist’s ‘deep commitment to art’s radical possibilities – even at its most abstract – to somehow figure or comprehend the world’ (Applin 2010, accessed 26 January 2017). Other works on paper by Bontecou that exhibit this tension between figuration and abstraction include the lithograph First Stone 1962 (Museum of Modern Art, New York).

Critics and art historians have identified much common ground between Bontecou’s drawing and sculpture. As Applin writes of Drawing: ‘Formally, Drawing shares much with the abstract imagery of Bontecou’s wall­mounted relief work … with its black voids or negative “nothings” puncturing the surface of abstract bulbous forms’ (Applin 2010, accessed 26 January 2017). This similarity can be seen, for instance, in the sculpture Untitled 1961 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). Curator Donna De Salvo notes that alongside her ‘complex sculptures that project into space’, Bontecou ‘has engaged in a parallel practice’ of producing works on paper (De Salvo 2003, p.214). The artist established this strong relationship between drawing and sculpture when she used welding processes on works in both two and three dimensions in the 1950s. The lineage of the central aperture and additional circular motifs of Drawing can also be traced both to earlier soot on paper works of 1958 and Bontecou’s group of welded steel, canvas and wire sculptures of 1959 (see Untitled 1959, Museum of Modern Art, New York). The central sphere continues as an organising gesture in Bontecou’s works throughout her career, and is particularly notable in a series of related drawings produced in 1961–2.

Further reading
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, p.68, reproduced p.68.
Donna De Salvo, ‘Inner and Outer Space: Bontecou’s Sculpture Through Drawing’, in Kari Dahlgren (ed.), Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles 2003, p.212–23.
Jo Applin, ‘Surviving Reality: Lee Bontecou’s Worldscapes’, Tate Papers, no.14, Autumn 2010, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/14/surviving-reality-lee-bontecou-worldscapes, accessed 26 January 2017.

Hana Leaper
January 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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Catalogue entry

Lee Bontecou born 1931

T00506 Drawing 1961

Inscribed 'Bontecou 1961' b.r.
Pencil on paper, 27 x 39 1/4 (68.5 x 100)
Prov: Presented by Leo Castelli 1962
Leo Castelli, New York (purchased from the artist)

The donor writes that, like all Lee Bontecou's drawings, this one is related to her sculptures in a general way (letter of 21 March 1963).

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.68, reproduced p.68


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