Often characterized as mysterious and threatening, Lee Bontecou's constructions resist easy classification. The artist expresses social concerns through the formal language of sharp edges, suturing, grid patterns, and black voids. A pioneer in lifting sculpture off the ground and onto the wall—by creating objects that are neither painting nor sculpture but rather something in between—Bontecou was among a cadre of female artists whose work was most critically acclaimed and actively collected in the 1960s.
Untitled is designed to hang on a wall. Richly textured, it is constructed on a projecting metal armature that seems simultaneously to thrust forward and collapse inward. Stitching ties together hard and soft materials, including strips of weathered canvas from a conveyor belt discarded from a laundry below Bontecou's studio on New York's Lower East Side. She plays with these dualities: push and contraction, hard and soft, hand-stitching and machine-welding, in an object that blurs the boundaries between inside and outside, mass and air, the human body (with skin and orifices) and landscape topography. As it wrestles with objecthood and illusion, Untitled is simultaneously beautiful and confrontational, threatening and vulnerable. The artist said her intention was to "glimpse some of the fear, hope, ugliness, beauty, and mystery that exist in us all."
Created at a time of palpable fear of nuclear devastation and emerging environmental awareness, Bontecou's forms were received as ecological parables and cold war metaphors. Minimalist sculptor and theorist Donald Judd said Bontecou linked "something as social as war to something as private as sex, making one an aspect of the other."
Bontecou welded Untitled herself, utilizing the portable oxyacetylene torch that transformed sculptural practice after World War II in response to David Smith's welded works. The artist intentionally leaves traces of the "making." Stitches, scorch marks, and windings of exposed wire influence our experience of surface, mass, texture, and depth and remind us of the role of process in her art. Bontecou began building chambers, making objects that resemble cameras, and stretching skinlike pieces of canvas across frames in 1956–1957, when she lived in Rome on a Fulbright fellowship. In Italy she encountered the art of Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana, both of whom explored stitching and puncturing fabric. Like these artists, she represents violence without representational realism.Works such as Untitled earned Bontecou inclusion in several important contemporary exhibitions, including two at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: The Art of Assemblage, 1961, in which she was positioned with well-known American and European artists, among them Louise Nevelson and Kurt Schwitters, and Americans, 1963.