To see the current Lee Bontecou exhibition at UCLA’s Hammer Museum is to enter a pleasingly mysterious, almost unknowable world. This artist’s vision-one so original it defies easy classification-is at turns heavy and brooding, lyrical and transcendent. The first galleries showcase the work that made Bontecou famous in the 1960s, when she was the only female among New York’s legendary art dealer Leo Castelli’s stable of artists. Powerful wall reliefs-framed like paintings, yet aggressively projecting into space as sculptures-were constructed by stretching canvas, found fabrics and other industrial materials over welded steel frameworks. The palette of these complex constructions is all sullen browns, greens and grays, with a recurring motif of black circular openings that can be interpreted as representing either a void or infinity. Indeed, the work suggests an otherworldliness, yet speaks to a darkness and melancholy known all too well in this world. Soot drawings from the ’60s, called “worldscapes” by the artist, also are on view and mesmerizingly capture an illusion of depth that is evocative of outer space. These works foreshadow the final gallery, where Bontecou’s art produced during the last 30 years-work completely unknown since the artist dropped out of the New York art scene at the height of her fame in the 70s-is unveiled. Before she retreated to a life of teaching at Brooklyn College and working at her studio in rural Pennsylvania, Bontecou last presented at Castelli Gallery a group of vaccuum-formed plastic works in the form of fish, plants and flowers. These works, strikingly different than her canvas sculptures, occupy the middle portion of the exhibition. Appearing at first to be almost whimsical, upon closer inspection the objects harbor a menacing, sinister quality. The giant, opaque fish, suspended from the ceiling, is depicted in the act of ingesting a smaller fish captured in its jagged teeth. The plants and flowers are colorless and droop with lifelessness, suggesting a natural world gone bad, and likely arising from the artist’s own ecological concerns. If this work is surprising, the art found in the last gallery, produced during Bontecou’s “missing” years, is truly jaw-dropping. The beautiful darkness of her early work has given way to a mystical lightness in the form of intricately-composed wire and porcelain sculptures that hang in space like puzzling new galaxies to be explored. This groundbreaking, wholly original work is best summed up by Bontecou herself, whose greatest preoccupation as an artist, according to curator Elizabeth A.T. Smith’s catalogue essay, is to encompass “as much of life as possible-no barriers-no boundaries-all freedom in every sense.” “Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective,” featuring approximately 70 sculptures and 80 drawings, continues at UCLA Hammer Museum through January 11. The show is curated by Elizabeth A.T. Smith, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago in association with Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum. Contact: 443-7000 or www.hammer.ucla.edu.
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