American Sculptor, Printmaker, and Draftswoman
Providence, Rhode Island
Summary of Lee Bontecou
The intricately constructed black holes, or voids, in Lee Bontecou's most famous pieces don't seem to belong to any type of art previously produced - painting or sculpture. These voids seem to connect to ulterior dimensions. Her work immediately calls to mind the alien worlds of science fiction and fantasy films and novels. Indeed, her methods, materials, and often vaguely unsettling images, set her apart from her contemporaries in the New York art world. Cited as a major influence by a variety of well-known artists, she nevertheless occupies an ambiguous place in the art history canon. She was difficult to categorize, both when she first emerged as a woman artist in the still largely male dominated New York art scene, and retrospectively. She was neither a Minimalist nor an Abstract Expressionist, although her work shares similarities with art from both movements. Despite being regarded as a Feminist artist, her art was not expressly feminist and, more importantly, she did not consider it as such. One of the most striking qualities of her work is that it struck a tense balance between celebrating technology and lamenting its impact on the natural world.
- Like some of the Dada artists, Bontecou embraced spontaneous mishaps. A major occurrence in her artistic exploration was her discovery of the way in which a torch for welding could produce an easily-controlled spray of the black soot that became a signature material in her work. The serendipitous soot led her to create the black holes (black that is a powerful, deathly void) that are almost ubiquitous in her work.
- The tough, industrial exteriors of Bontecou's works function as frames for the void-like interiors. These gaps in the armor of her sculpture's surfaces are suggestive of bodily orifices that are somehow vulnerable and exposed. The concept of oppositions is a persistent theme in Bontecou's oeuvre and, in this case, she emphasizes the tension between the industrial and the organic: the latter, the natural environment, is susceptible to damage or even destruction by the former.
- Bontecou was a pioneer in the use of unconventional materials, including scavenging and repurposing objects like metal tubing, saw blades, and miscellaneous scrap hardware. She often juxtaposed the industrial with earthy materials like soot and ragged linen canvas to create the stark contrasts that she transformed into vaguely sinister extraterrestrial landscapes and hybrid human/cyborg body-scapes.
Biography of Lee Bontecou
Lee Bontecou was born in Providence, Rhode Island and grew up just outside of New York City in Westchester County. Her father, an engineer, built gliders for the military during the Second World War. Her mother, equally industrious, assembled submarine transmitters at a munitions factory. Exposure to their work fostered in her an early fascination with engineering and the mechanics of industry.
Important Art by Lee Bontecou
A relief from early in Bontecou's career, this work was produced from materials such as scrap metal or wire found outside of factories and warehouses, and broken conveyors from the laundromat above which the artist lived in the industrial Lower East Side. This particular relief bears a slight resemblance to the early Cubist collages of Picasso and Braque.
Inspired by her memories of war and by modern advancements in science and engineering, Bontecou juxtaposes scrap materials and organic forms to create an interplay between the natural and the industrial. To create this piece, she cut various lengths of canvas and, using salvaged copper wire, she sewed the canvas together so that a subtle, nautilus pattern spirals inward toward an oblong black void. She affixed the constructed composition to a welded steel frame, which because of her small stature, required Bontecou to stand on a ladder.
The nautilus shape references her love of nature and marine life. The black hole, purposely built into the composition, relates to the infinite mystery and wonder of the unknown universe. Following its construction, the hole was sprayed with soot and covered in black felt, which further enhanced the illusion of depth. Bontecou has created a compelling vortex into which the viewer is pulled as though being drawn irrevocably into an actual black hole. The intensity of the composition as a whole is enhanced by the way the fall relief actually invades the viewer's space, coming out powerfully out of the canvas.
Bontecou purposely left the connecting wires visible. Not only does the visibility of the materials create a sense of brutality -- and brutal honesty -- but it lends the relief a kind of harsh, unforgiving character, which the artist associated with warfare. The patched-up canvas, some of which is military surplus, acts as skin and directly relates to the fragility of mankind.
By the time Bontecou created this piece, her wall reliefs were becoming larger and more complex. She continued to incorporate found materials -- repurposed canvas, metal, rope, and wire - and to juxtapose the natural and the industrial. In this work, she references the iconography of popular science fiction: the concept of the cyborg, a creature that is both human and mechanical, plays a central role in the narrative of this sculpture.
The pieces of canvas in this work are grouped tightly in a patchwork arrangement and held together with a series of metal belts. The canvas functions as the organic or even human counterpart to the mechanical, industrial components used to create the cyborg. The contrast is striking: there is an uncomfortably tense balance between the natural world and the machine-made realm of an imagined, darker future.
Here, the focal point is a large protruding clamped mouth. The mouth, fashioned from reclaimed saw blades that Bontecou salvaged from nearby derelict hardware stores, makes reference not only to the cyborg but to the Mouth of Truth fountain in Rome (according to legend, a person that puts their hand into the mouth of the sculpture and tells a lie will have their hand bitten off.) The sharp, regular teeth of the blade form the teeth of the monstrous cyborg. What might have been a deep, black void in previous works is a menacing mouth or, as suggested in feminist readings, the Freudian vagina dentata - an emasculating image meant to suppress masculine fantasies of sex and dominance.
In this work, Bontecou conspicuously fills the central black void but includes an array of smaller voids, which are evocative of bodily orifices such as eyes and vaginas. With the inclusion of grill imagery, she effectively bars access to some of these spaces, which in earlier works were left open as a means of encouraging exploration. In this instance, Bontecou intended for the grills to reference prisons to which access is restricted. Her use of both barred and open recesses relates not only to her growing disillusionment with space exploration and but also to notions of entrapment and fear. In short, the work functions as a warning that technology can not only open new vistas but it can also expose a darker side of human aspiration - an almost suicidal carelessness that has humans stumbling gleefully into a potentially sinister unknown. The piece seems to say, "There are places we should not travel, both within and beyond the known world."
Bontecou's experiments with the soot created by a welding torch yielded complex, textured, and modeled surfaces like this piece, one of the works she referred to as her "outer space drawings". Here, she explores the theme of celestial mystery by creating a fictional landscape, an anxiety-provoking spatial dystopia. Bontecou used heavier-weight paper, which she found to be less susceptible to damage from the heat of a blowtorch. She began the work by mounting the paper directly onto the wall and spraying a continuous stream of soot horizontally across it. Grill imagery and her signature black recesses are in this instance produced via a subtractive method: the tedious, manual scraping away of layers of applied soot. Bontecou used her fingers, razor blades, and erasers to unearth the hidden images contained within the forbidding black (fingerprints are still visible throughout the work).
This fantastical structure is meant to represent a space-age docking station, which had actually become a real phenomenon when the United States launched its intensive, decades-long space exploration programs. Inspired by real-life events as well as Bontecou's verdant imagination, this series is full of hauntingly beautiful images of possible utopias. There is a dark side to these drawings, too, as the artist felt that the possibility of creating a better world was deeply compromised by increasingly more contentious international competition (as exemplified by the Cold War). This work also speaks to her persistent interest in the opposition between the organic and the industrial, the potential for industry and technology to destroy the natural world rather than improve it.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Lee Bontecou
- Modern American SculptureBy Dore Ashton
- Women, Art and SocietyBy Whitney Chadwick
- Women Artists of America: 1707-1964By William H. Gerdts
- American Women ArtistsBy Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein
- Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1942-1962By Paul Schimmel
- Lee Bontecou Drawings: 1958-1999By: Lee Bontecou
- Lee Bontecou: A RetrospectiveBy Elizabeth Smith, Robert Storr and Lee Bontecou
- Lee Bontecou: Vacuum-formed Sculptures and Related DrawingsBy Elisabeth Sussman
- Drawn WorldsBy Michelle White
- Lee Bontecou: ArtsceneBy Diane Calder / Artscenecal.com / October 4, 2003
- The Uncanny Eye: Lee BontecouBy Collette Chattopadhyay / The International Sculpture Center / March, 2004
- The Terms of Craft and Other Means of Making: Lee Bontecou's Hybrid TrajectoryBy Elyse Speaks / Art Journal Open / April 29, 2013
- Missing In ActionBy Calvin Thomas / The New Yorker Magazine / August 4, 2003
- Lee Bontecou Doesn't Care What You ThinkBy Mara Tapp / The Chicago Reader / March 4, 2004
- Oral History Interview with Lee BontecouBy Dore Ashton / Archives of American Art / January 10, 2009
- The Menil Collection Showcases Fifty Years of Lee Bontecou's Surreal DrawingsBy Rebecca Bates / Architectural Digest