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Lee Bontecou Photo

Lee Bontecou

American Sculptor, Printmaker, and Draftswoman

Born: January 15, 1931 - Providence, Rhode Island
"I just got tired of sculpture as a big thing in the middle of a room. I wanted it to go into space."
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Lee Bontecou
"Getting the black...opened everything up. It was like dealing with the outer limits."
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Lee Bontecou
"The little pencil is a magic box, ... You can take a piece of paper and walk anywhere."
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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."-"
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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"
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Donald Judd Signature
"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."
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Mona Hadler
"War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body..."
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Filippo Marinetti

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 Photo

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.

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

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Content compiled and written by Whitney Porter

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Debra Thimmesch

"Lee Bontecou Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Whitney Porter
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Debra Thimmesch
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First published on 02 Sep 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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