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Secret Taping

Harvey Bott's drawings languished in his studio for 50 years

The drawings now hanging on the wall at Sicardi Gallery were almost tossed out. Harvey Bott was cleaning out his studio and had a barrel of old things he wanted to get rid of (when you've been making art for five decades, you accumulate a lot of stuff). But David Brauer, the art historian/art raconteur extraordinaire, was looking for work to include in a show he was curating and asked Bott if he could look through the container. Brauer dug around, fishing out a small red sketchbook. Inside was a cache of work done in 1952 by an 18-and-a-half-year-old Harvey Bott.

The book contained an incredible series of drawings. They were made from tape, which was neatly applied to paper to create linear, abstract works. In his youth, Bott had submitted them to the faculty of the Art Center College of Los Angeles, and they wound up giving him a $5,000 cash scholarship. If you look at the drawings and try to put them into a historical context, you realize they were created during the abstract expressionist zeitgeist of the early '50s, but they look like Frank Stella's proto-minimalist stripe paintings, way before Frank Stella made them.

There is something jolting about seeing such strong, cohesive work and realizing it is 50 years old -- and that it was made by a teenager.

Harvey Bott's tape drawings, made when he was a teenager, still look modern.
Courtesy of Sicardi Gallery
Harvey Bott's tape drawings, made when he was a teenager, still look modern.

The lines that cross Bott's pages have a subtle physical presence different from the self-possessed paint strokes Stella would introduce. Here, the taped line is a kind of two-dimensional object, if that's possible. The drawings evidence Bott's long-standing fascination with line and the mathematical division of space. (Bott once won a math scholarship to Rice University but decided not to go because, at the time, Rice offered only a couple of art classes.) Fifty years later, the works still feel fresh and smart, with an extra dash of hipness resulting from contemporary art's recent tape fascination. But the strength of the work far outstrips any art fashion or nostalgia.

The drawings are executed in both cellophane tape and masking tape in neutral tones of black, gray and beige. Who knew tape came in colors in the '50s? For the wittily minimal Scotchline, Bott simply placed rows of clear Scotch tape on top of each other. They are barely visible, divided by lines of graphite on the edge of the tape. Bott has created a line that isn't really a line but an edge. The drawing has the calm, thoughtful horizontality of an Agnes Martin -- before Agnes Martin.

Next to it is 13 Horizontals, a series of horizontal strips of black tape. The edges are torn with care but not cut. His isn't super-fussy X-Acto knife design work; the execution is matter-of-fact and workmanlike. The strips of tape stack on top of each other with an engaging solidity that is more appealing than a brush stroke.

Half Gloss features vertical black stripes partially glazed by strips of clear tape that also cover the bare paper. It's a simple, subtle piece. Other works, including Look Up, present Stella-esque concentric squares made from masking tape. And the angularity of AN is a dynamic hybrid of references to geometric forms and letters of the alphabet.

Looking at the carefully inscribed signatures, we're reminded of Bott's youth. Avoid Authority features vertical stripes of gray and black, with a tiny chunk of tape moved to the side, interrupting the continuity of the work -- and allowing room for Bott's initials. Bott makes it clear that he's the one in control of these images.

The drawings have become a little smudgy and grubby over the years, but that only gives them a kind of gravitas. This is visually sophisticated work for any artist, but especially for a teenager. Bott's family moved from Colorado to San Antonio when he was 14. One wonders what his career path would've been like if he'd been in New York and had Stella's prep school and Princeton University connections. There's the work the artist makes, and then there's his timing, marketing, connections and luck.

Bott joined the army in 1954 and went to Europe; he spent an additional year there on an art scholarship. When he returned to the States, he took some classes at NYU and eventually saw Stella's work. His first reaction was "Hey, that guy is doing my stuff!" But Bott is philosophical about the way things turned out, quipping, "He who gets to market first wins."

Stella, forever immortalized by his early work, has been resting on his laurels and churning out a lot of overproduced, lame crap. Bott, meanwhile, is still working and exploring. His most recent project is an amazing series of low-tech/high-tech installations that define three-dimensional space through line. The works look like fiber-optic strands but are actually colored yarn and black light.

The enthusiasm of the art community for Bott's 1952 work has been contagious. Fifty years later, the artist himself is reinvigorated by the exhibition and its revisiting of his past. He is also revisiting materials. "Gawd, have you seen all the new tapes?" he asks, guiltily confiding that he just went out and bought 200 bucks' worth.

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