Lee Bontecou - Biography and Legacy
American Sculptor, Printmaker, and Draftswoman
Providence, Rhode Island
Biography of Lee Bontecou
Childhood and Education
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.
Bontecou's summers were spent in Nova Scotia, where her maternal grandmother lived on a small island. There she observed with great relish the diversity of lifeforms specific to the area. She spent her free time reading science fiction novels and studying marine life. As a youth during World War II as well as the postwar period, she saw the mingling of these two interests and the impact that industrial and technological development had on nature. This dichotomy of nature versus machine would be an enduring theme throughout her long artistic career.
Bontecou studied art at Bradford Junior College in Massachusetts for two years. In 1952, she enrolled at the Art Students League in New York where she remained until 1955. She was initially trained in academic painting but later turned her attention to sculpture. She studied under William Zorach, whose abstract figurative sculptures were an early compositional influence. She spent the summer of 1954 at the Skowhegan School in Maine, where she learned welding and afterwards began to incorporate it into her figurative sculptures.
In 1956, Bontecou was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Rome. She spent the entire academic year experimenting with her craft in attempts to establish her own distinctive style. As an aspect of her study, the artist traveled periodically in Italy, studying public art and architecture. She was especially interested in the architecture of Italian piazzas, the sculpture of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the ancient Etruscan art that had inspired Alberto Giacometti. Her work from this period, primarily extensions of the abstract figurative pieces she created at the Art Students League, featured animal forms, particularly birds. Their cast, elongated bodies, resembled the works of Giacometti. She was also exposed to the art of the Italian Futurists like Umberto Boccioni and to the works of Alexander Calder. She became personally acquainted with Calder, whose signature mobiles undoubtedly influenced her later mobile sculptures.
In 1957, while still in Rome, Bontecou discovered that the blowtorch she used in welding could produce a rich spray of black soot when the oxygen was turned off. That same year the Soviet Union launched the satellite Sputnik into space. Her discovery, at that time in history changed the nature and direction of her artwork. Thereafter, she persisted in exploring the seemingly infinite potential of what she referred to as "the black" and produced a series of soot drawings that she referred to as Worldscapes, other worldly landscapes featuring forms resembling craggy rock formations and striated, streaky skies captured in grisaille.
Bontecou returned to New York in 1958, taking up residence in a loft above a laundromat in the then-industrial and depressed Lower East Side. The canvas work that she had begun in Rome was becoming increasingly larger and more assertive. She continued to experiment with the artistic properties of soot, the residual elements of which are the central focus of her sculptures of the late 1950s. In 1959, her work captured the attention of artist and art critic, Donald Judd, who became one of her earliest supporters and regarded her sculptures as early Minimalist prototypes. He wrote several essays about her work between 1960 and 1965.
Bontecou's residence in the heart of old industrial New York provided her with easy access to discarded laundry bags, conveyor belts, and various materials discarded as mechanical waste. These found materials became an integral part of her wall reliefs of the early 1960s. Like many of her contemporaries, she was drawn to the formal properties of these discarded materials. She reimagined them, fused the industrial with the organic, and created artworks that emblematized the contradictory space age.
Bontecou has described her wall reliefs as, among other things, expressions of her anger towards war. The post-war images of Holocaust victims she'd seen as a child remained with her well into adulthood and her angst concerning war was further fueled by the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the countless conflicts occurring around the world at the time. That abiding, cynical outlook was balanced by a certain optimism inspired by the unprecedented expansion of human endeavors made possible by space exploration. These two conflicting emotional states were reflected in her monumental sculptures.
In 1960, Bontecou had her first solo exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. The show was well received and generated an outpouring of praise and interest on the part of critics, collectors, and museum curators. Shortly afterward, she was featured in Art in America's "New Talent" issue of 1960. Additionally, she was profiled in numerous periodicals ranging from Time and Life to Vogue, Mademoiselle, and Cosmopolitan. She was also included in Ugo Mulas's landmark exhibition, New York: The Art Scene, where her work was on display alongside that of established artists such as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol.
Not only was Bontecou the sole female artist represented by the Castelli Gallery at that time, she was also one of the few women artists to receive substantial attention in the larger context of the hyper-masculine New York art scene of the era. Her gender and the broad recognition she garnered also made Bontecou a favorite in Feminist art circles, although she never referred to herself as a "feminist" artist per se. Regardless, many critics and curators insisted on discussing her wall reliefs, with their black voids, in feminist terms. For instance, the black holes were thought to represent mouths or vaginas. She resisted these associations and consistently emphasized that her intention in the use of blackened voids was to evoke mystery and a range of emotional responses to the unknown, the wondrous, and the sublime. The feminist interpretation was further challenged by writer, professor, and art critic, Dore Ashton, who, in a 1962 essay, insisted that Bontecou's signature black holes were indicative of destruction, "like looking down the barrel of a gun".
Although, she never affiliated herself with any specific movement, Bontecou had tremendous respect and admiration for the Abstract Expressionist artists. She appreciated both their expressive freedom and the fact that, ostensibly, they were not beholden to theory. Artistic freedom and the ability to experiment were two of the most important considerations for her and, throughout the early 1960s, she explored the possibilities of other media, including lithography, one of the results of which was her 1963 to 1964 lithographic series titled Stones. Around the same time, Bontecou determined that her compositions were in need of lighter-weight materials to produce the effects she desired; thus, she began using materials like silk, balsa wood, and later, vacuum-formed plastic.
In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote her environmental treatise Silent Spring, a controversial commentary on the state of the environment that resonated intensely with the nature-loving Bontecou. Inspired by contemporary political and environmental concerns, she shifted her focus to more natural, organic forms. She also attributes this shift in the trajectory of her work to major changes in her personal life: In the spring of 1965, she married fellow artist, Bill Giles and soon after gave birth to her daughter, Valerie. Along with another couple, Giles and Bontecou purchased a parcel of land in rural Pennsylvania. She had always been a naturalist at heart and her love of nature was rekindled in this country setting. The forms that inspired her were strongly evocative of biological life - predominantly fish, plants, and flowers. She integrated natural observations with her imagination and created altered representations of flora and fauna.
In 1971, Bontecou accepted a faculty position at Brooklyn College, where she taught ceramics and sculpture for 20 years while continuing to create artworks in her barn. That same year, she exhibited her plastic fish and flowers at the Leo Castelli Gallery. Reception of her strange, hybrid forms was lackluster and precipitated her decision to not only leave the gallery but to also abandon the fickle New York art world itself, a world that she felt held fast to the status quo, seemingly preferring the wall reliefs that she produced early in her career rather than encouraging her exploration and development as an artist. The exhibition at the Castelli Gallery would be her last solo show for many years.
In 1993, Elizabeth A. T. Smith, then curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, organized a show that included a number of Bontecou's drawings and sculptures from the 1960s. The success of this exhibition rekindled interest in her work. Artist and curator continued to correspond and Bontecou invited Smith to visit her rural retreat.
That same year, Bontecou was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a life-threatening illness that subjected her to hospitalization and blood transfusions every three days. She recovered in 2000 and began to collaborate with Smith on a retrospective exhibition, which opened in 2004. It was the first time in 30 years that her work was shown publicly. She continues to work out of her barn in Pennsylvania.
The Legacy of Lee Bontecou
Bontecou's persistent experimentation - her use of non-traditional techniques and materials, set her apart from other artists of the period and, particularly, the Abstract Expressionists, who still relied largely on conventional materials and processes despite their rejection of objective representation.
Artists such as Eva Hesse and Donald Judd, who were part of the next generation, cite her work as deeply influential. Indeed, it was Judd who proclaimed that her soot-based sculptures were prototypes of Minimalist sculpture. Contemporary artists such as Nancy Grossman, Petah Coyne, Arlene Schechet, and Robert Gober point to Bontecou as influential to their installation pieces. Kiki Smith, who saw several sculptures by Bontecou while still in high school, famously said of the older artist, ''She became important by her absence. As a woman artist who had made it, she came to represent a model of how to escape, how to leave the art world and keep on working, which I think about all the time.''