Lasting through time

Untitled, welded steel, canvas, black fabric and wire, 1959

     Most artists want all the public exposure they can get.  But in 1972 artist Lee Bontecou (1931- ), considered one of the more important American artists working at the time, walked away from a profitable career as a gallery artist in New York’s art world and spent over 30 years working in isolation. 

     Bontecou said, “I needed a rest.  I wanted to explore and expand.  I just didn’t want to have to make things, and finish things, and show them every two years.”  Married and with a young daughter, she decided to concentrate on raising her daughter and teaching.  She continued to work on her art in relative isolation during the 70s, 80s and 90s, creating remarkable drawings and sculptures in her western Pennsylvania studio.  During this time, she chose not to show her work publicly. 

     This was a remarkable decision, but Bontecou has always been a unique and remarkable artist.  She began rising to fame as a student.  She attended the Art Students League of New York from 1952 to 1955.  She received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Rome in 1957-58, and in 1959 she received the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award.  From the 1970s until 1991 she taught at Brooklyn College.  One of the largest known examples of her work is in the lobby of the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City.  This huge piece includes the Plexiglas turret of a World War II bomber, and appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

     In 1959 Bontecou broke away from the tradition of solid forms, using shaped canvas with wire frames that have sharp projecting forms and dark crevices.  She began stretching scavenged fabrics such as laundry conveyor belts, canvas, etc. over welded steel frameworks.  Ignoring the conventional view of sculpture, she made abstract sculptures that hang on the wall like paintings, using found materials, saw blades, army helmets and other war surplus and industrial items, as well as pipe, burlap, canvas, wire and screening.  Gaping holes were accented with sooty blacks from the extinguished end of her acetylene torch.  The critic Danto described her work as being “at the intersection of magnified insects, battle masks and armored chariots…”     

     Some of her older work is like war equipment, springing from the fear she felt as a child upon hearing about the Holocaust.  “The funniest thing is that those pieces ended up in German museums or Israeli ones,” commented Bontecou.  “Just where they belonged, without my saying a thing.  One of those pieces went to the Jewish Museum in New York.  It was a sort of memorial of my feelings.  I never titled any of these.  Once I started to and it seemed to limit people to a certain response, so I didn’t continue.” 

     As Bontecou worked alone in her studio during the decades of self-imposed isolation, she listened to short-wave radio broadcasts of terrorist attacks and horrific events in Africa.  “I’d get so depressed that I’d have to stop and turn to more open work.  Work that I felt was more optimistic…”        

Untitled, sculpture, 1998, by Lee Bontecou

    After decades of obscurity, Bontecou was brought back to public attention by a 2003 retrospective co-organized by the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.  The show traveled to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2004.  The show included a large display of work done both before and after she retreated from public view. 

     Over the past several years, Bontecou has begun to exhibit again.  Her recent work is a complete reversal of the heavy, dark pieces she made during her earlier career.  She has been making delicate wire and ceramic sculptures that hang in mid-air, creating beautiful shadow patterns on walls and floors that change as the lighting changes.  Many of these amazing sculptures hang suspended from slender rods that support handcrafted ceramic orbs which look like galaxies. 

     Early in her career, Bontecou wrote that she wanted to “express a feeling of freedom in all its necessary ramifications — its awe, beauty, magnitude, horror and baseness.”  She has certainly succeeded in doing this.  Artist Nancy Rubins commented, in what reads like a tribute to Bontecue’s amazing career, “What students don’t understand is that having an MFA means nothing.  You have to make yourself an artist.  You have to last through time.”




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