Lee Bontecou: Back From the Void

In 2003, I got to talk to Lee Bontecou a couple of times, and it made a deep impression. Not a week goes by that I don’t think of her “clearing out the barn before kicking the bucket so I don’t leave a lot of junk for my kid to deal with” motivation for relaunching her career. That’s my paraphrase, though she came close to that in one of our conversations. Turns out she had a bit more time than she thought, with her passing just over 19 years after the opening of the stellar Hammer retrospective that occasioned our conversations. I should dig around and see if I have the tape of the whole interview somewhere. OK, that’s on the Tadoo list. In the meantime, here’s the original cut, tweaked for temporal coherence:

Few artists of the last 60 years have achieved the kind of mythological status that has been accorded Lee Bontecou. I don’t mean the kind of myth that comes from staying in the public eye and on top of the art-world game — like her former stablemate at Leo Castelli Gallery Jasper Johns, for example. Quite the opposite: Bontecou’s symbolic importance has been based on the fact that she turned her back on a blue-chip career and vanished from the art scene entirely, becoming a shadowy figure subject to a great deal of speculation — not all of it flattering.

But the artist’s journey — long thought destined to remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of contemporary art — came full circle in October 2003, when the Hammer Museum unveiled Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective, the most comprehensive survey of her work, curated by Elizabeth Smith and Hammer director Annie Philbin. The exhibit is remarkable on many counts — after showing here and in Chicago, for instance, held an unprecedented tenure at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, an institution renowned for its curatorial self-sufficiency. But the kicker is the fact that this was the public’s — and The Art World’s — first chance to see what Bontecou has been doing in her studio for the past 30-plus years.

Untitled (1970), graphite on white paper

I first heard of Lee Bontecou in the mid-’80s from an angry young academic feminist in undergraduate art school who insisted, somewhat paradoxically, that Bontecou’s disappearance was testimony to both her victimhood as regards the crushing monolith of hetero-patriarchal hegemony, and to the possibility — necessity — of constructing alternate parallel art worlds in order to disrupt this monopoly. All well and good, apart from the fact that nobody had heard a peep from her in years, and she hadn’t had a solo gallery show since 1971. There also seemed, at least among this young woman’s circle of stern friends, almost no interest in the artist’s actual work — which to my eyes seemed extraordinary. But hey, maybe that was just my privileged gaze talking.

Beginning in the late ’50s, Bontecou had presented a body of work that seemed to absorb and synthesize an enormous array of influences ranging from Tiffany lamps, prison architecture, rocket design and reptile skeletons to cutting-edge contemporary American and European painting and sculpture. Her large, labor-intensive wall reliefs — constructed from fragments of worn and discolored canvas stretched and attached with twisted wire onto elaborately welded geometric steel structures, almost invariably framing a central circular void darkened with black soot — struck a disturbing balance between a delicate but assured abstract formal genius and a brooding fascination with the visual vocabulary of the military-industrial complex.

Untitled (1966), welded steel, canvas, epoxy, leather, wire and light

“The whole space program was a wonderful thrill,” admitted the artist in a telephone interview just prior to the Hammer opening, “The war was another thing — the machinery became a part of it. A love/hate thing. You look at one of those big fat bombers today, and you can’t beat it as a piece of sculpture flying through the air — and then it goes and kills people. Human nature became part of the material that I used; there’s the good and the bad, and the play of that against the natural world. It’s all one thing.”

Bontecou’s ominous constructivist mandalas were an immediate hit — she was signed to the prestigious Leo Castelli Gallery, and her first show there in 1960 prompted a torrent of publicity, inclusion in important international museum shows (including the 1961 São Paolo Bienal and Documenta III in Kassel, Germany), and a commission for a 20-foot-long lobby sculpture for Philip Johnson’s Lincoln Center theater building.

Born in 1931, Bontecou split her childhood between Westchester, NY, and the untamed coast of Nova Scotia. Her father sold gliders and invented the aluminum canoe; her mother wired submarine parts during World War II. After a couple of years at Bradford Junior College in Massachusetts, Bontecou decided to become an artist, moved to New York and began attending the legendary Art Students League in 1952. “You paid by the month, you could change classes by the month, there were no grades, there was no anything — no one cared what you did,” she remembers. “The instructor came in once or twice a week, gave a crit and left. I learned more from the students who were better than I was, who were there for a while, who knew how to do this, that or the other. It was really lively.” She spent one summer at the Skowhegan Art School learning to weld. In 1957, she moved to Rome on a Fulbright fellowship, and stayed for two years before relocating to an unheated studio above an industrial laundry in Hell’s Kitchen. Within another two years, she had been profiled in VogueTime and Art in America.

Bontecou in her Wooster Street studio, New York, 1963 Photo by Ugo Mulas

As the ’60s progressed, Bontecou’s forms began to spill out of their frames and take on distinctly crustacean overtones. By decade’s end she was fastening together vacuum-molded plastic plates and tubes into spooky, transparent deep-sea creatures and alien plant forms. In these days when bioengineering controversy and natural-history aesthetics pop up regularly as themes for gallery and museum exhibits, it’s hard to realize what a perversion this freestanding biomorphic sculpture was taken to be 50 years ago.

“The work was very different, she was really following a new direction and it wasn’t as well received as her earlier pieces,” recall Elizabeth Smith from her Chicago office. “These were not what people expected to see — they were not her signature style. And I think that she felt disappointed by the reaction, that her freedom as an artist wasn’t being appreciated. What has mattered to her edmore than anything is to be very free — in what she chooses to make and how, and in living her life. So she decided she’d had enough and to step away. I think that she felt that she didn’t need the art world anymore.”

Untitled, 1970 Vacuum formed plastic. 30 x 57 x 21 in.

“I just didn’t want to keep making pieces. It was time to think again,” explains Bontecou. “I just didn’t want to have that pressure. And I think everybody does this. It’s nothing new. There are a lot of businessmen who say ‘I’ve had enough of that,’ and they retire and go and do other things. I needed time to work and not have to be having shows. Also my life changed — I had a child to raise, my father lived with me. So life was really full. You move on. You have to move on. It was a natural thing. It wasn’t planned. And no big deal, really. It was a nice break.”

Bontecou stopped exhibiting, moved away from Manhattan, and stopped answering inquiries about her work. She got a job teaching at a city college in Brooklyn and stuck with it for 20 years (in spite of which she says, “I still don’t really think that art should be taught in a university”) before finally retiring to a Pennsylvania farm with her husband and daughter. But as far as the art world was concerned, she’d dropped off the map. In contrast to Bontecou’s cult status among cognoscenti, her work seemed to have been expunged from contemporary art history. Whether as punishment for breaking away from the herd, or a response to her increasingly difficult-to-pigeonhole work, Bontecou was essentially written out of the art-history books, and her works moved to the back rooms of museums.

It was there that curator Smith’s fascination was piqued. Occasional chance encounters with Bontecou pieces in Minneapolis’ Walker Center or the Art Institute of Chicago snowballed into a major preoccupation. Determined to produce a museum show to rehabilitate Bontecou’s neglected status, she tried making contact with the artist but, typically, received no reply. She moved forward anyway, assembling the small but influential Lee Bontecou: Sculpture and Drawings of the 1960s for MOCA’s Grand Street space in 1993. Then a surprising twist: Bontecou responded, and actually visited the show, giving it a de facto stamp of approval. She and Smith kept in touch, and when the curator moved to MCA Chicago in 1999, Bontecou invited her for a studio visit.

“It was very exciting, because I didn’t know what to expect,” recalled Smith. “I imagined that maybe she was continuing to work in the same vein as previously, which many artists do: they don’t evolve. I thought the work was very strange and very exciting. It had an energy to it, a vitality — and a power that was different from her earliest pieces. But still a kind of strangeness and a sense of oscillation between abstraction and representation. Its materiality is very strong — you can’t quite name or pinpoint the references it suggests to things in the world, whether they’re machines or organic life. They’re fantastic hybrids that evoke the sensations of many things.” Annie Philbin — who as the head of NYC’s Drawing Center had long been interested in showing Bontecou’s works on paper — was now directing the UCLA Hammer. As the gears began turning for a comprehensive survey show, she too was invited for a studio visit, and confirmed Smith’s first impression.

Which was on the money. The “lost” work is dazzling — hovering, spidery solar-wind-driven spacecraft that hark back to prototypical American welder David Smith’s lyrical early work (before he started scratching into the surfaces of stainless-steel cubes). Suspended from the ceiling, Bontecou’s sculptures also engage gravity with the sophistication of an Alexander Calder mobile. But it is their astonishing intricacy and their flickering representational passages — looking one moment like molecular models from a physics class taught by Terry Gilliam, the next like hornets’ nests caught in mid-explosion by stop-action photography — that simultaneously set them apart from these abstract masters and single-handedly establish a retroactive lineage between the Surrealist roots of Abstract Expressionism and the current art fascination with failed utopian Modernism.

Late works

Assembled — sometimes over a period of several decades — from hundreds of tiny components including welded steel, wire mesh, wire, canvas, silk, epoxy and handcrafted porcelain beads, these are artworks that probably wouldn’t have been realized under the pressures of the contemporary art world, with its relentless deadlines, mandatory commodification and global social whirl. “I think it’s very inspiring,” says Smith. “Her reasons for making art are because she felt the need to make it, not because she had a show coming up or wanted to advance her career to the next level.”

Many believe an exhibition to be the final, climactic stage of any artist’s creative process — an attractive idea in terms of art’s social necessity, but placing not just the measure but also the power of creative achievement squarely in the lap of the gallery system. I asked Bontecou if she felt that the retrospective was somehow the culmination of her three decades of studio retreat. She laughed. “I was pretty happy with it just there. The creative part, the most rewarding part, is working on it and having breakthroughs. Afterwards, they’re gone and they’re really not mine. But I guess I really haven’t experienced this for a long time, so it’ll be something new for me.”

Why has she decided to re-emerge at that point? “When Elizabeth came to the farm and saw the work and wanted to have a big show and I said yes, it was a relief. I hadn’t been well, and I didn’t want to have all that stuff left for my daughter or husband to deal with. And I guess I still feel that way.” In spite of her own pragmatic existential indifference, Bontecou’s sudden reappearance — with a body of work as powerful as any she’s shown before — was bound to have significant repercussions in the art world.

Early works

For starters, the show’s itinerary just happened to cover the three major art-education centers of America, and Bontecou’s laboriously handmade, emotionally charged objects (with their unironic incorporation of the aesthetics of post-apocalyptic science fiction) unsurprisingly had a major impact on the next generation of young artists, sick of the slick fabrications and anemic pseudo-conceptualisms of the ’90s.

Then there’s the feminist angle. Like many female artists who achieved success before the advent of the women’s movement, Bontecou rankles at reductivist ideological interpretations of her work. “I don’t go with all that. There’s men and there’s women, and we have to live together. There’s terrific issues all over the world with the suppression of women, but art is art. It’s either good or bad or in between. So women’s art wasn’t sold as high, but so what? The most important thing is to work, and the hell with all that. You just have to keep going, and you can’t waste time. The studio is where the fight is.”

Nevertheless, Bontecou’s heroic return erased the taint of defeat that accompanied her disappearance for many women in the art world. The artist’s silence about the motives behind her withdrawal left open the possibility that the male-dominated art world had successfully silenced what was arguably its strongest female voice of the 1960s. Said Smith, “I had a conversation about this with Kiki Smith [no relation], who told me that for her it was absolutely significant that Lee is coming back, because many of the women artists of the ’60s were role models for Kiki’s generation, but they all stepped away like Lee or passed away like Eva Hesse. And from Kiki’s perspective as an artist, it’s very important for someone like Lee — a woman in her 70s — to be back on center stage.”

While emerging and mature women artists alike can take heart from Bontecou’s revised example, the significance of her comeback has even more profound implications for artists in general. Unintentional as it may be, these spindly cobweb Trojan horses carry a depth charge into the heart of the institutional art world, and its message is this: Artists don’t need any of it. Not the fame, not the glory, not the feedback, not the community, not the validation, not the authorization. There’s the dark mystery of the Void, and there are the vessels we craft to contain or navigate it. There’s the seemingly insurmountable stupidity and greed of human nature, and there’s the will to create. And that’s enough. To hell with the rest. The studio is where the fight is.

RIP Lee Bontecou January 15, 1931 – November 8, 2022

LEE BONTECOU: A Retrospective was on view at UCLA Hammer Museum October 5 2003 – January 11 2004


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