By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Few artists of the last 30 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 — comes full circle this weekend, when the Hammer Museum unveils Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective, the most comprehensive survey of her work, curated by Elizabeth Smith (formerly of L.A.’s MOCA, now chief curator at the MCA Chicago) and Hammer director Ann Philbin. The exhibit is remarkable on many counts — after showing here and in Chicago, for instance, it will hold 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 will be 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, 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. This in spite of 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 last week. “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 Vogue, Time 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 30 years ago.