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Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1966. Structure made of polyester, fiberglass, and metal frame, with collage of fabrics, skins, and paint; 9 feet long by 6 feet tall by 22 inches deep.
  • Courtesy Pompidou
  • Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1966. Structure made of polyester, fiberglass, and metal frame, with collage of fabrics, skins, and paint; 9 feet long by 6 feet tall by 22 inches deep.

Lee Bontecou is one of the great underappreciated artists. Walking through Elles for the umpteenth time late last night, when Seattle Art Museum was on the verge of closing and I really didn't have time to get caught up in any one artist among many, I became transfixed in front of this giant insect/race-car/war machine on the wall. I've seen it before, and other of her works, but I sometimes forget how much is in a single one of these pieces. Her works since the 1960s are less interesting to me, but there's so much in these massive early constructions that I still want to mountaintop-shout her name. (A different 1966 sculpture by the artist was a part of my childhood that I'd forgotten for years.)

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First, the materials of Untitled, 1966. They're primal alternating with 20th-century-industrial, reflecting faceless armies and cozy domestic scenes both. Stretched animal skins. Cast-off conveyor belts from the laundromat she lived above in 1960s New York. Discarded mail bags. Fiberglass shells like the bodies of airplanes. Strips of polyester fabric. In the upper left corner, a back pocket from the smooth ass of a worn pair of loved jeans.

Some of the materials are left alone, patched up like pieces on a quilt. Others are shaped and slung over frames of steel. Curves wear airbrushed paint for adornment. You can see the angry battle masks of ancient societies, the hopeful and glinting parking lots of 1950s American car dealerships and airports, the Pentagon, the Borg.

Bontecou stands out even in a room of towering, majestic works of art by the late Louise Bourgeois and Louise Nevelson, titans of the 20th century. And this particular sculpture in Elles isn't even her most aggressive—toothy, as she might phrase it. "Like war equipment, with teeth" is how she once described her visceral, dark, crawling, swooping wall sculptures that look too top-heavy to avoid threatening you with their stowed weight.

Bontecou retired from the art world after the 1960s, not making her roaring comeback until a retrospective at the Hammer Museum in LA in 2003 (the exhibition site has lots of images), after which she became iconic but far from a household name. (A 1963 photograph of her by Ugo Mulas became the cover of Spoon's 2007 album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, but few people can probably identify that badass coolly surveying her studio.)

Untitled, 1966 is a map of the universe. My eyes scan the surfaces hungrily. Meanwhile, my mind races up and down paths in history, art, science. The loving bondage of Eva Hesse. Robert Rauschenberg's messed bed. The Development of a Bottle in Space by Boccioni. More, more, more; the looking-tripping can go on forever. Scarabs. Alien. Boeing. Canoes. Whole schools of philosophy are alive in that pure velvet void at the lower right.

January 15 will be Lee Bontecou's 81st birthday. Which drink do you want to drink in her honor?

Elles is up for two more weekends only.