Lee Bontecou or The Power of Objective Chance

So many years ago — 8 maybe. I’m trying to remember autobiographically where this might have fallen but that’s part of what makes it funny. This absurdly striking Vogue article — but then I’m doubting if it was Vogue at all — that I stumbled upon in Barnes and Noble, and this I’m pretty sure of, flipping through various things from something more significant than idleness.

Was I on the clock or waiting for someone else? There was a time when Dan and I shared a car and it seems like now I spent hours and hours waiting one way or another. But I can’t be sure it wasn’t in that interim between when I felt so very ungrounded anyway, like any small breath might couch and overwhelm me. I feel like I almost know what I was wearing. I feel like I almost remember just how I was standing.

I feel like I can almost.

And I can see these pieces of the pictures. These spindly, elaborate bundles of world detritus floating and in partial completion and pieces of life and big empty studio walls and tables full of things and then her. Her crouching — sitting? — from below, that monumental perspective photographers like to employ. Next to some giant beast of a sculpture. Was she smoking? I kind of think so but it also seems counter. I do remember her hands and her wrinkles. I remember her straight grey hair. And I remember it’s the reaction I had the first time I saw a photo of Joan Didion. I remember deliberate eyes. And thin lips. And square features. And I remember the world hesitating. Or maybe it was me realizing the world simply is steady and even and slow.

But then I put it down. I remember, of course, and it mattered and matters, of course. But I just set it down on whatever big table in whatever big studio I have in my head. And things would remind me. And I’d say — or at least I think I’d say — “I saw this thing in Vogue once that looked kinda like that” or “I saw this article in Vogue once that had this totally amazing woman in it and she was handsome. Like powerful and talented looking. Isn’t that amazing?” or I’d say, “I’m still trying to remember her name because her stuff was just bizarre and fabulous.” And then it started slipping away, I’d say “I saw this thing once, I think it was in Vogue or something, some magazine and it had this amazing sculptor” or “There was this woman I saw in something once who made these totally delicate, powerful sculptures out of metal and cloth and little pieces of thing. This totally reminds me of that.”

And then slowly it slipped further. Was it Vogue? I seemed so oddly attached to that idea it must have been but no amount of googling would turn up anything. But that was later anyway, after it had time to sit, to echo, to fester.

It wouldn’t even occur to me but I’d begun to define things according to how I remembered feeling about that article. My work, my life, my “shyness”, my angst, my being unknowingly got compared to my reaction to this article I hadn’t even read because I’d set it down when someone came to find me.

I don’t need to be a sculptor (although I wouldn’t hate that or think it’s out of the realm of could-bes). I don’t need to be famous. I don’t want to be. But this weird bastion of the creative, of strangely creative women — specifically strange and creative — seemed so significant. And it wasn’t this valiant rescue by “creativity” saving me from my boxed in existence. I didn’t discover art as my passion in this moment. I don’t feel like I’ve been swayed from the non-productive, that I’ve had the risk schooled out of me, that I’ve been denying some inexplicable desire I’ve had from birth.

I don’t believe that art is fear. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t — I have never breathed a breath devoid of fear it seems, in art, in math, in science, in the lunchroom, on the block, walking through a hall, staring in the mirror, in peace, at rest; fear is no more expressly unique to art or creativity than birth is.

But I digress.

This didn’t feel fated in any traditional sense; I didn’t feel fated to find this woman, to learn about this woman, to take after this woman, to relate to this woman. It didn’t feel like answers. It only felt like chance, unexplainable, cryptic. Cryptic or senseless, or strangely and powerfully both. It seemed like two forces, I and her — at least paper article her — had, as a fact contingent on absolutely nothing, collided, creating a fate.

I felt like, here was a woman being. She wasn’t salable, she was just valuable. And in her wasn’t some constructed confidence or pride or strength, some salesman’s easy smile. And I would find my heart go to her to rest when I could no longer weather the cognitive dissonance of interaction with people.

Presentation, I understand, is an inherent form of communication; one presents oneself, every choice and lack of choice speaks. Explanation, even of truth, requires some deliberate formulation of perspective. Communication is decisive, it’s a construction, an intention, it has purpose and motive. I feel like there’s some inherent flaw that measures good intentioned exchange too similar to stratagem.

We seem always to define and redefine ourselves by what we say, when all we wanted was to render things seen and described.

It may be silly to say that existence smolders and flares with an inherent tragedy, that we trip and struggle with the twists of language only to grab onto whatever definition seems attainable, but that is what I’m saying. And it is exhausting. It’s mostly benign but then suddenly it can become so grossly immoral, so grossly inaccurate. And now, now after losing so fantastically in school for so many tripped up pigeon holes of language and purpose and personalities, this tiny moment of time I’d set down seems some strange beacon of what-could-be.

This picture gave — gives — weight to real things and real points that have, until now, seemed brief and naive to me. Because I have used this article as a pillar, rescuing me from that rising tide of cognitive dissonance. This visual is a trail of breadcrumbs equivalent, keeping me from spinning endlessly in an idealist loop of how I should feel about communication and how I do. It has become a strong arm to give force to these obtuse and vague parts of my personality that our culture struggles to articulate and as a result dismisses.

But I’d begun to doubt I’d gotten it right. I clung frantically and often to it. I used it but I worried that I used it as a crutch, something transitory and impermanent, something false. I was in such a constricted reality at the time, self-inflicted or at least self-contingent, I worried I must have gotten it wrong. I couldn’t find the picture that would activate the memory more solidly, anyway. I would start and quit looking organically and sporadically, flip winsomely through google images or gently research Vogue databases and articles. And for those 8 or so years I found nothing. Nothing that looked even remotely like her. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to name her. I wasn’t sure about so much.

But then I go to a kid’s section in the last minutes of a museum trip that would likely end up being unnecessary. A museum I’ve been to time and again, ad nauseam and in a part that feels so patterned on other people’s worlds, I find this:

Lee Bontecou

No wrinkles, hardly any face, years and years the junior of the woman I remember. Angrier maybe. And softer too. I could hardly consider the possibility that I’d found her in such a strange place and way, in such an indefinably linked and totally opposite exposition. But I think I have. I think, even now it’s hard to say it, that yes, this is the woman.

I believe it. It blossomed up like something separate from me, like something vital. It didn’t feel ordained or momentous, not fated-to-be, just quietly absolute. The article I had seen and employed and centered on was about Lee Bontecou.

I, in knowing these things now, had stumbled upon a picture of her on a Spoon album sometime in between these moments. The significance of Spoon seems important though mostly inexpressible and perhaps not pertinent. But I remember looking up the picture because I thought it interesting. And I remember following it to her wikipedia page. I remember flipping about in search of something. And I vaguely remember thinking her to be a boy. I thought it significant enough to save for recall, clearly but I never figured it out. I even believe I related it to that Vogue article offhandedly like I had come to do.

You’d think that this would kill the connection or, if you prefer a wildly sentimental view, strengthen it. It certainly magnifies it. But the gospel of the article isn’t exactly rendered weaker or stronger by knowing this. But neither can it express how significant that moment was for me. No scratch that, how significant that moment is. Is. Not is to me, or how I thought of it, or how someone might think of it. How it is.

It isn’t dependent on me or circumstance. It isn’t dependent.

It is a thing of itself, it is that pillar, it is that trail, that correlation. And even in that, in having given it a voice in this piece which I have surely done — a voice that I am proud and sure of — I still can’t share how separate, solid and intense it is. How, even though the vehicle was personal, it was and is ubiquitous. I’m not sure how it came to be, to recur and precipitate. But now it has all fallen like dominos and means exactly nothing more or less than when I first experienced it.

Nothing more. Nothing less. It still just is.

And it ineluctably still just is.

The Panter