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Artists Lee Bontecou
Lee Bontecou Photo

Lee Bontecou

American Sculptor, Printmaker, and Draftswoman

Movements and Styles: Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Dada, Minimalism

Born: January 15, 1931 - Providence, Rhode Island

Lee Bontecou Timeline

Quotes

"Getting the black...opened everything up. It was like dealing with the outer limits."
Lee Bontecou
"The little pencil is a magic box, ... You can take a piece of paper and walk anywhere."
Lee Bontecou
"She's drawing with metal, she's painting with canvas. One of the things she pioneered was to get sculpture off the ground, to make something that was neither a painting nor a sculpture, but something in between."-
Elizabeth Smith, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
"Bontecou [has made] her work so strong and material that it can only assert itself...It is credible and awesome"
Donald Judd
"Bontecou's work embodies the paradox of the space age, especially in her pairing of the cosmic and the brutal. She speaks passionately of dichotomies and sees her sculpture as divided between optimistic works and angry war pieces, representing the positive and negative sides of science."
Mona Hadler
"War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body..."
Filippo Marinetti

"I just got tired of sculpture as a big thing in the middle of a room. I wanted it to go into space."

Synopsis

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.

Key Ideas

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

Lee Bontecou Photo

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.

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Lee Bontecou Biography Continues

Important Art by Lee Bontecou

The below artworks are the most important by Lee Bontecou - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Untitled (1959)
Artwork Images

Untitled (1959)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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

Untitled (1961)
Artwork Images

Untitled (1961)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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

Untitled (1966)
Artwork Images

Untitled (1966)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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

More Lee Bontecou Artwork and Analysis:



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Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Lee Bontecou
Interactive chart with Lee Bontecou's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Richard BellamyRichard Bellamy
Constantin BrancusiConstantin Brancusi
Alberto GiacomettiAlberto Giacometti
Alexander CalderAlexander Calder

Personal Contacts

Joseph CornellJoseph Cornell

Movements

Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism
MinimalismMinimalism
Feminist ArtFeminist Art

Influences on Artist
Lee Bontecou
Lee Bontecou
Years Worked: 1957 - present
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Eva HesseEva Hesse
Robert MorrisRobert Morris
Donald JuddDonald Judd

Personal Contacts

Dore AshtonDore Ashton
Donald JuddDonald Judd

Movements

MinimalismMinimalism
Feminist ArtFeminist Art

Useful Resources on Lee Bontecou

Books

Websites

Articles

Videos

More

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Modern American Sculpture

By Dore Ashton

Women, Art and Society

By Whitney Chadwick

Women Artists of America: 1707-1964

By William H. Gerdts

American Women Artists

By Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein

More Interesting Books about Lee Bontecou
Surviving Reality: Lee Bontecou's Worldscapes

By Jo Applin
Tate Papers no. 14

Lee Bontecou: Artscene Recomended resource

By Diane Calder
Artscenecal.com
October 4, 2003

The Uncanny Eye: Lee Bontecou

By Collette Chattopadhyay
The International Sculpture Center
March, 2004

The Terms of Craft and Other Means of Making: Lee Bontecou's Hybrid Trajectory

By Elyse Speaks
Art Journal Open
April 29, 2013

Missing In Action

By Calvin Thomas
The New Yorker Magazine
August 4, 2003

Modern Women: Veronica Roberts on Lee Bontecou

Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) New York

transcripts

Lee Bontecou Doesn't Care What You Think

By Mara Tapp
The Chicago Reader
March 4, 2004

Oral History Interview with Lee Bontecou Recomended resource

By Dore Ashton
Archives of American Art
January 10, 2009

reviews

The Menil Collection Showcases Fifty Years of Lee Bontecou's Surreal Drawings Recomended resource

By Rebecca Bates
Architectural Digest

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Whitney Porter

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Debra Thimmesch

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Whitney Porter
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Debra Thimmesch
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