Reinventing Beauty at the Museum of New Art: This Is Not Lee Bontecou

Reinventing Beauty at the Museum of New Art: This Is Not Lee Bontecou

Thomas Poe’s This Is Not Lee Bontecou
June 20 – July 25, 2009
Opening Reception: Saturday, 20 June

A day will come when the image itself, along with the name it bears, will lose its identity. – Foucault

Lost Art Newly Reconstructed

Also Showing

*(due to a legal injunction, the name and art work of the original artist have been denied and removed from the following text and exhibition; however, the proposed paintings have been reconstructed by Thomas Poe and now solely bear his attribution.)

alt text© ‘Number 4′, 1971-2009
Dry painting on canvas
36×28 inches
Technical Assistance: Thomas Poe
Photo: Peter Heiter

Once at the top of her game, a young artist walked away from her New York art career. She was one of the few women artists to achieve broad recognition at the time. She shared the fast track with Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and each subsequent exhibit only built upon her rising fame – until her last. Then, abruptly, the artist turned and walked away from it all. Her work has seldom been seen since. Until now.

At Detroit’s Museum of New Art, the first things that seize you are the intelligence and rigor of this artist’s enduring iconography, counterpoised with the luminous refinement of her touch. Looking into these delicate, intricate forms mined from ideas now nearly four decades old, it is hard to believe they come from the same hand that came to wield an acetylene torch with such ferocious intent.

Still, Number 4 (several versions here) is quintessential. A close-up of her characteristic chasm with its surrounding membranes, an intimation of obscure engulfing forces. Yet, at the same time, so different from the expected treatment and media: predominantly paint and ink, rather than canvas over welded metal armatures. Her imagery is tautly spare here and less varied than we’ve come to know, yet her preoccupations are identical as always. Ever-present is her radial organizing structure where everything spirals around a darksome aperture, as ominous and enigmatic as the mark of Cain.

All the paintings and prints are best described as a simpler mix between her early painting days and the forms she explored later at her height of creativity, once she had switched to the more sculptural. But just as in all of her work, especially since the early 1960s, this small series makes deep references to both the organic and the sexual.

In 1995 the artist Thomas Poe unearthed information that this artist, still under promise to her NY gallery for one more exhibition, may have left behind a notebook of sketches and diagrams intended for that last obligation. Surreptitiously planned for 1973, if this “last” exhibition had come together as planned it now seems the artist’s then perceived methods and vision would’ve been turned on end. The sketchbook suggests an altogether different direction for the artist: a sudden about-face for her, back to “straight” painting and away from her more raw sculptural work throughout the 1960s. Then again, perhaps these painterly sketches and notes were bogus, simply a ploy left behind to keep everyone happy while she slipped out his gallery’s front door – forever.

All this mystery only came to light while Poe was attending an extended substance abuse program in upstate New York in the mid-90s, where he came across a fellow patient who claimed to have once been a gallery assistant at the New York gallery circa 1971. This informant vividly described to Poe the contents of the artist’s file presumed to include sketches and ideas for the proposed 1973 exhibition. All of these were so colorfully described to Poe, that the artist has spent the last 5 years attempting to reconstruct the most memorable – but not as the original sketch as described, instead as the intended and completed painting. Quite the challenge for any artist, let alone one best known as the tri-state’s foremost art forger.

Real Fakes, or Genuine Reproductions

Thomas Poe is a member of an elite group of artists working for museums, private collectors and insurance companies. These artists execute exact reproductions of famous masterpieces to be put on public display or loan, while the priceless originals are stored and preserved in a safe vault.

All such artists are highly skilled, with years of academic training in the different styles, movements and periods in the history of art. Such expert technicians paint copies using only the traditional artistic techniques and materials — many of which are no longer available, except to professional restorers. Poe began his career as a top conservator working at the Art Conservation Department of one of the largest detailers in all the tri-state area.

“I prefer the term innuendos,” Poe argues, when asked if the artwork in this exhibition might be considered forgeries, “with each being an exact duplicate in the style of the artist. Forgery indicates intent to defraud. And I never made anything with that intent. Everything is in the open and above board. I always guarantee that any painting I produce will be a faithful original. I even have business cards which say: Thomas Poe, Authentic Reproductions.”

Real fakes then? Or, genuine recreations?

“When Tom came to me with this wonderful story,” Christina Speaks, curator of the Museum of New Art, explains, “how could I turn away such a discovery!”

How does one respond to allegations that the supposed gallery file never really existed? That there is no hard evidence that it ever did. Or, if it did, possibly the folder contained only blank sheets of paper.

“That’s totally irrelevant now,” Speaks says. “With the current ‘rediscovery’ of many women artists, and this one especially – it’s no longer about the art. It’s about their life and story and their sudden celebrity. And this show only embellishes all that.”

What more could anyone ask?

Also showing: The Replacements

Katie Martineau-Caron
Jenna Caschera
Tim Eads
Marie Perrin-McGraw
Ian Swanson – mmiillkk
Lindsey Yeo
and special guest:
Timea Kristof (Postcards from Transylvania)

Museum of New Art
7 North Saginaw Street
Pontiac, Michigan 48307
Contact: Christina Speaks

*Letter received June 1, 2009: We represent Lee Bontecou in Intellectual Property matters. It has come to our attention that the Museum of New Art intends to display her art work in an upcoming exhibition starting June 20, 2009. An exhibition and public display of her work, without approval, would constitute an unauthorized use of her work protected by copyright. Should you fail to cease and desist from these infringements, we will advise our client of the available legal remedies including proceedings for an injunction and damages, as allowable. Lee Bontecou has not hesitated to prosecute violations against others. -S.A. Esquire

The Museum of New Art responded June 1, 2009: agreeing to remove any display or use of Ms. Bontecou’s work or attribution.