American Sculptor, Printmaker, and Draftswoman
Providence, Rhode Island
Cedar Key, Florida
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.
Progression of Art
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.
Welded steel, canvas, black fabric, soot and wire - The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
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."
Welded steel, canvas, wire and rope - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
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.
Graphite and soot on paper - Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island
By the mid-1960s, Bontecou had begun to experiment with new themes, materials, and techniques. Prompted by her move to the country, she began to focus on more overtly natural and organic subjects such as fish, plants, and flowers. In the interest of producing more lightweight sculptures, she began using plastic, which also provided the works with a compelling transparency. In this sculpture she depicts a life-size, mutated fish. Experienced usually in a larger installation, multiple pieces like this one are exhibited by suspending them from the ceiling so the viewer is forced to "swim" through a school of disturbingly realistic, mutant fish replete with spiked scales and gnashing teeth. The viewer's attention is also draw to the smaller life forms being digested in their translucent bellies.
Bontecou created the fish forms by carving the shapes out of Styrofoam -- yet another modern, industrial material. She then placed the molds in a vacuum-forming machine. The heated suction created an exact plastic replica of the carved shapes. The final phase involved bolting and gluing the plastic form into a unified piece. As with her earlier wall reliefs, the artist left the connectors visible in the finished work so that the individual fish appear to be armored.
This series of plastic fish has been interpreted as a commentary on the negative impact of pollution on marine life. This fish is strange, sinister - a goldfish crossed with a shark. The plated armor plastic skin serves as a barrier against the unknown dangers, both natural and manmade, of the sea. While based on forms seen in the natural world, Bontecou's fish is the result of a mutation: a fusion of form and function.
Vacuum-formed plastic - Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
This stylized flower form, made from vacuum-formed plastic, plastic tubing, and frosted acrylic transforms an object from the natural into a kind of space-age simulation of nature. The stem that supports this hybrid bloom is suggestive of the underground drain pipes that transport water to millions and nourish humans and plants alike. In this way, the work references the Clean Water Act (passed in the U.S. the same year as this sculpture was created), which was the result of increasing concerns about an environment compromised by water and air pollution. The air pollution is represented by the gas mask that protrudes from the center of the full bloom on the right.
Bontecou incorporates the gas mask and the pipes to create the opposition between the natural and industrial environments. Delicate, intricately rendered petals shaped like fallopian tubes protruding from the pipe-like stem underline the critical importance of water and air for life; the fallopian tubes function as a further commentary on the notion of plant and human life and regeneration.
The flower can also be interpreted as a pictorial response to the constant threat of pollution and nuclear warfare that characterized the Cold War era. The fragility of the flower is brought out by the contrast with the threatening gas mask. According to Bontecou, the flowers were meant to convey the following, ponderous message: "Okay, we have to have plants. If you don't watch out, this is all we'll have to remember what flowers used to look like, this kind of flower that is made out of plastic."
Vacuum-formed plastic, plastic tubing, and frosted acrylic
Bontecou created this work over a span of 18 years during which she continued to manipulate and experiment with the layout and construction of this large-scale, fictional galaxy. In this sculpture, she continues to draw on the micro and macro elements of the cosmic world, referring back to her earlier Worldscapes. Her galaxy of canvas and metal is suspended from the ceiling and materials spiral and overlap in a manner resembling planetary rotation. Drawn from actual astronomical renderings and imaginary constructs, her creation is composed of tiny porcelain and ceramic orbs suspended from piano wire and rings of metal and canvas like a host of tiny stars. The rotating rings and planets are drawn together by a central blue porcelain orb, the central star or life-generating sun in Bontecou's imaginary galaxy. The artist constructed her signature dark void within the porcelain orb and, as with previous works, it may be interpreted as either an eye or vagina, or both. Both conjure associations with creation while the eye suggests an omniscient, ever-watchful demiurge.
This fantastic, miniature universe was designed to be experienced in the round. The open plan of the sculpture allows for the interplay of light and shadow through which the mobile takes on different forms when viewed from various angles. It is perhaps also demonstrative of the early influence of her friend, Alexander Calder.
Welded steel, porcelain, wire mesh, canvas, and wire - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
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.''