Degree Date



Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


History of Art


This dissertation focuses on the reception and interpretation of the welded steel and canvas reliefs that the American artist Lee Bontecou created between 1959 and 1964.In Chapter 1,I present an overview of the initial critical reception of Bontecou’s steel and canvas reliefs, highlighting those exhibitions and texts from the first half of the 1960s that stand out as important records of this work’s reception. In Chapter 2, I examine the feminist claiming of Bontecou’s reliefs that occurred between 1965 and 1976.Here, I contextualize the feminist response to Bontecou’s art within its historical moment, in order to consider how feminism has shaped our understanding of her reliefs, and how these objects pose questions for feminist thinking about art and art history. In Chapter 3, I shift from an analysis of the critical and scholarly reception of Bontecou’s reliefs, to a consideration of the artist’s words and how, over the years, critics and scholars have mobilized, and at times overlooked, the artist’s statements about her work. Finally, in Chapter 4, I propose that Bontecou’s steel and canvas reliefs may be understood as ambivalent objects that both materialize and memorialize the artist’s responses to the social and political events that shaped the 1950s and 1960s. I present close visual analyses of three of Bontecou’s reliefs from the early 1960s, and position this work in relation to sculptures by two postwar American artists, David Smith and Ed Bereal. I suggest that Smith’s War Spectre(1944) and False Peace Spectre(1945), and Bereal’s Focke-WulfFW 109 (1960) reflect a similar concern with war and violence to that of Bontecou’s reliefs, and I argue that this work expresses an ambivalence with respect to war and the aesthetics of war machines.


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