The Life and Works of Lee Bontecou, Sculptor of the Void

Lee Bontecou in her Wooster Street studio, New York, 1964.
Lee Bontecou in her Wooster Street studio, New York, 1964.

Courtesy Archivio Ugo Mulas, Milano – Galleria Lia Rumma, Milano/Napoli, Photo: Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs.

American artist Lee Bontecou (January 15, 1931–present) came of age at the outset of massive change in the United States. She was born in the throes of the Great Depression, came into consciousness during the Second World War, matured into an artist as the Korean War and other conflicts arose, and continued her practice throughout the Cold War, confronting issues like the Space Race and the threat of nuclear powers in her work.

Fast Facts: Lee Bontecou

  • Full Name: Lee Bontecou
  • Occupation: Artist and sculptor 
  • Born: January 15, 1931 in Providence, Rhode Island
  • Education: Bradford College and the Art Students League of New York
  • Key Accomplishments: Represented the United States in the São Paulo Biennale in 1961, received a solo exhibition at the star-maker Leo Castelli Gallery in 1966, and was featured in numerous group shows.

Early Life

Growing up, Bontecou split her time between the New England city of Providence, RI and Canada’s Newfoundland, where she spent her summers. She was deeply enthralled by her physical, natural world. In Newfoundland, she was given the freedom to roam, explore the minerality of wet sand on Canada’s Eastern coastline, and escape to her room to draw images of the flora and fauna she encountered on her adventures.

Bontecou’s father invented the first all-aluminum canoe, while her mother had worked in armaments factories during World War Two, making wires for use by the army. It is not hard to see both of her parents’ life circumstances as having an effect on the artist’s work, as the machinery, rivets, and junctures that both mother and father would have known in their professional lives made their way into the synthesized mounted sculptures for which Bontecou became known. (Some compare Bontecou’s work to engines, others to guns and cannons, but there is no doubt that there is something of the constructed, man-made world of industry in them.)

Art Education

While Bontecou certainly showed signs of an artistic inclination in her youth, her formal training did not begin until after college, when she enrolled in the Art Students League in New York. It was there that she discovered her love of sculpture, a medium that resonated with her artistic sensibility.

The work Bontecou produced while at the Art Students League earned her a Fulbright Grant to practice in Rome for two years, where she lived from 1956-1957. It was in Rome that Bontecou discovered that by adjusting the oxygen levels on the blowtorch she used in studio, she could create a steady stream of soot with which she could effectively draw as if with charcoal. Unlike charcoal, however, this soot produced an even deeper black color, one by which Bontecou was captivated—whether this fascination was due to memories of playing in the primordial sludge on the beaches during her youthful summers in Canada or the fact that the color reminded her of the unknown abyss of the universe is unknown, but both are equally plausible explanations. 

With this new tool, Bontecou produced drawings she called “Worldscapes." These drawings are reminiscent of horizons, but feel as if they encompass the depths of space and the human soul simultaneously in their dark surfaces.

Success and Recognition

In the 1960s, Lee Bontecou saw much commercial success for her work. She was notable for both her young age (she was in her 30s) and her gender, as she was one of the few female artists receiving such honors at the time. 

Bontecou represented the United States in the São Paulo Biennale in 1961, was given a solo exhibition at the star-maker Leo Castelli Gallery in 1966, and was featured in group shows at the Museum of Modern Art, Corcoran Gallery in Washington, and the Jewish Museum. She was also the subject of numerous articles in popular magazines with national readership beyond the bounds of the art world. 

Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1963.
Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1963.  Museum of Modern Art

By the decade’s close, however, Bontecou had retreated from the art world. She began teaching at Brooklyn College in 1971 and would teach there until the 1990s, after which she moved to rural Pennsylvania, where she still lives and works today.

Notable Motifs and Style

Bontecou is known for the presence of black holes in her work, often protruding physically into the observer’s space. Standing in front of them, the viewer is overwhelmed with the uncanny sensation of confronting the infinite, the abyss. She achieved this astonishing effect by lining her canvas structures with black velvet, the matte textured surface of which would absorb light, making it difficult to see the back of the work and producing the sensation that it could be, perhaps, without any back at all. The structural part of these works are pieced together scraps of various materials, from the canvas strips she scavenged from the laundry above which she worked to the abandoned U.S. Mail bag she found.

Bontecou would sometimes distance herself from the vertical picture plane and take to the air in her construction of hanging mobiles. Though they depart formally from her earlier works, these hanging sculptures share similar preoccupations with the wall sculptures, as they can be simultaneously seen as constructions of our minutest structures of existence—the forms of interacting molecules—or of cosmic significance, that is, the orbiting of planets and galaxies.

Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1980-1998.
Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1980-1998.  Museum of Modern Art

For Bontecou, the strange foreignness of her work was comprehensible when approached from her life circumstances, which is not to say her works are autobiographical, but rather, she worked from what she gathered within herself. As she said of her work: “This feeling [of freedom I derive from my work] embraces ancient, present, and future worlds; from caves to jet engines, landscapes to outer space, from visible nature to the inner eye, all encompassed in the cohesiveness of my inner world."

Legacy

Lee Bontecou’s work was born from the complex geopolitical tensions in the world, the advent of a mechanized total war, and the jostling for power that ensued during the Cold War. While her work evokes munitions factories and the Space Race, subsequent generations—born safe from the threat of Hitler and after the Vietnam draft—can and will stand in front of Bontecou’s abstract works and think of the infinite mystery of which we are all a part.

Sources

  • "." YouTube. . Published August 2, 2010. 
  • Butler, C. and Schwartz, A. (2010). Modern Women. New York: Museum of Modern Art, pp. 247-249. 
  • Munro, E. (2000). Originals: American Women Artists. New York: Da Capo Press.