Lee Bontecou, one of the most accomplished sculptors of the postwar generation whose stitched and sutured constructions pushed sculpture to its limits, from the floor to the wall, and then into the void, died on Tuesday at her home in Florida. She was 91. Her death was first reported by the New York Times Tuesday.
Bontecou had her artistic breakthrough in 1959, creating an immediately recognizable body of work that was unlike anything the New York art world had seen before or since. Taking soiled canvases that had been used in conveyor belts and discarded by the laundry downstairs from her East Village loft on Avenue C, Bontecou cut-up these found canvases, further dirtied with soot, and coarsely stitched them together with wire over welded steel armatures, always with a looming void near its center.
Bontecou’s sculptures were wall-mounted, arriving just before a fertile period in which other artists would similarly question how and where sculptures should be displayed. And, because her art was mounted to the wall, those looming voids seemed endless, limitless, and infinite. They transport one to other realms, at once otherworldly and intimately interior. Black holes that seemed to say something about the era—something you couldn’t quite put your finger on—but that were nonetheless moving and evocative.
“I just got tired of sculpture as a big thing in the middle of the room. I wanted it to go into space,” Bontecou once said, according to The Art Story.
But Bontecou’s interest in space was no mere artspeak; these works were timely, referencing her fascination with the Space Age and the world’s obsession at the time with reaching realms beyond Earth, as Sputnik had been launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.
“I had a joy and excitement about outer space—nothing was known about the black holes—just huge, intangible, dangerous entities, and I felt great excitement when little Sputnik flew,” Bontecou later recalled, according to the Museum of Modern Art, which is among the dozens of major institutions to have collected her work.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, when she first achieved wide acclaim, Bontecou’s works, the majority of which are untitled, were often misinterpreted. Because of her gender and at a time when second-wave feminism was on the rise, many saw the voids as vaginal and ultimately sexual in nature. Bontecou flatly disagreed with any of those connections, saying years later in an interview with the Chicago Reader that “Art is art, and it doesn’t mean whether it’s woman or man. It doesn’t matter.”
Still, Bontecou broke barriers that few women artists had been able to crack through before her in the art world. In 1960, Ivan Karp, the legendary art dealer who at the time was an associate director at Leo Castelli Gallery, visited her loft. In a 1969 oral history with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Karp recalled “seeing these tentlike structures with their fierce apertures, you know, rather terrifying. And in contrast to them, this little girl [Bontecou] was a rather unsettling experience.”
That year, Castelli, which had already established itself as a star-maker with important solos for Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, showed Bontecou in a group show alongside those two artists and others it represented. Then, later that year, following solos for Frank Stella and Cy Twombly, Bontecou had her first solo show at the gallery. For years, she was the only woman on Castelli’s roster.
Major success soon followed, with acquisitions by the Whitney Museum and MoMA, which then included a different piece by the artist in the exhibition “The Art of the Assemblage,” curated by William Seitz, alongside pieces by earlier figures like Picasso, Braque, and Duchamp and her contemporaries like Rauschenberg, Willem de Kooning, and Jean Tinguely. In 1963, architect Philip Johnson commissioned her to make a monumental 21-foot sculpture for Lincoln Center. That year she also participated in the Bienal de São Paulo and then in 1964’s Documenta III in Kassel, Germany.
Bontecou’s art was always hard to classify: it didn’t neatly fit into any specific postwar movement, it didn’t look like the work that was in vogue at the time, and it was made by a woman. Neither Abstract Expressionist nor Pop not Minimalist, it was a body of work that was entirely its own. Her work’s popularity and significance ebbed and flowed over the ensuing decades, often being underrecognized until more recently.
“After her phenomenal success in the 1960s, she was following a new direction, and it was not what people expected to see—it was not her signature style,” curator Elizabeth A.T. Smith, who organized a Bontecou retrospective, once told e-flux. “I think she felt disappointed that her freedom as an artist wasn’t being appreciated or understood. What has mattered to her more than anything is to be very free-in what she chooses to make and in living her life.”
Smith, who published an essay on Bontecou in Art in America in 1993, added, “Bontecou can no longer be considered simply a historical figure whose work was important in the 1960s. Whether she likes it or not, she is here to stay.”
Lee Bontecou was born in 1931 in Providence, Rhode Island. She spent her childhood in Westchester County, New York, with summers at a family college in Nova Scotia, where her mother was from.
After high school, Bontecou did two years at Bradford Junior College in Massachusetts before moving to New York in 1953, where she studied for five years at the storied Art Students League. During the summer of 1954, she had a formative experience at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, where she learned how to weld. From 1956 to 1957, she studied in Italy on a Fulbright scholarship.
During World War II, Bontecou’s mother, Margaret, worked in a factory wiring together submarine parts. Coupled with an almost obsessive consumption of news and world events from a young age, from the horrifying details of the Holocaust to the Cold War as it played out in real time, Bontecou’s practice encapsulated and melded together these influences into sculptures that spoke to the era. As her work progressed during the ’60s, it became even more violent in nature, with the incorporation of gas masks, helmets, and blades.
Toward the end of the decade, she had a daughter, Valerie, and by the 1970s, she moved to rural Pennsylvania with her husband, painter William Giles, and Valerie, as she had grown tired of New York. “The whole city was turning into a … boutique,” Bontecou told Dore Ashton in a 2009 SAAM oral history. SoHo, where she had moved her studio, “was turning into a zoo.” (Bontecou would commute back to the city, however, to teach at Brooklyn College for two decades until 1991.)
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After Valerie’s birth, Bontecou’s work turned more toward her love of nature, which she had first discovered during her summers in Nova Scotia. These works, some of which were first shown in 1971 at Castelli, were often made from translucent plastic and featured fish and flowers as their subject, taken, in typical Bontecou fashion, to their extremes with exaggerated added elements that made them slightly unsettling.
“No one saw them until I showed them,” Bontecou said in the 2009 oral history. “And then everybody was disappointed, you know. They wanted more of the same old same old, and they didn’t get it.”
That ended up being Bontecou’s last New York show for three decades, and, despite her teaching appointment at Brooklyn College, she seemed to disappear from the art world at the height of her fame. (She even declined to show work in the 1995 Whitney Biennial, after much chasing by its curator Klaus Kertess.)
But Bontecou seemed to enjoy that, in particular not having the pressure of having to show with a gallery. In her 2009 oral history, she said, “It was really neat. That was one reason for teaching … was to be free of all that. … And so I didn’t have to contend—and Morris [Dorsky] used to stomp in and say, ‘Why aren’t you showing,’ and all this stuff, and I would say, ‘Oh, Morris, go away.’”
But, after a health scare in the early 2000s, Bontecou agreed to participate in the planning of a major traveling retrospective that was curated by Elizabeth A.T. Smith, who had previously organized a survey of her work in the 1990s at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and Ann Philbin, the director of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Smith’s retrospective opened at the Hammer in 2003, before making stops at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and MoMA.
The exhibition, which also included work that Bontecou had made in the ensuing 30 years and not previously exhibited, brought renewed attention to Bontecou’s work, bringing her work back to the fore, which in the nearly two decades since has inspired countless artists.
“When [Bontecou] opened the barn door to her studio it was truly one of the most shocking and thrilling moments of my life,” Philbin told ARTnews in an email. “The barn was brimming with the 30 years of extraordinary work she had made in her self-imposed isolation. Rooted in nature and her own powerful imagination, Lee’s sculptures and drawings are fierce, gorgeous, and utterly unique. Despite her determination to remain outside of the mainstream she stands out as one of the most important artists of her time.”
And though, Bontecou’s art may have directly referenced the world as she saw it around her, she never wanted to strictly define what it was about. That was up to the viewer. As she told the Chicago Reader when asked, “Do people ever ask you, ‘What does this mean?’ What do you say?”, she coolly replied, “I don’t answer at all. It’s what you see in it. What I see in it is something else. I don’t get caught up in that.”