One of my favorite modern sculptors is sadly one of the most under appreciated. Those stuffy academics only briefly describe her work so they can point to her and declare, “But we have examined a female sculptor” and thus the diversity requirements of a text book are met. But I have found that the brevity of textbook discussions of her sculptures are desperately wanting and the singularity of her body of work is overlooked. Most annoying to me is she is rarely credited for pioneering the movement of getting sculpture off the ground. Her entire body of work redefines sculpture by crossing the line separating a sculptural forms from painting.
Essentially, Bontecou uses her skill as a sculptor not only to explore the relationship between 2D drawing and 3D form, but to challenge it. In the 60’s, during the era of space exploration, the artist composed 3D vortexes by stitching together layers of canvas streaked with shades of black onto armatures hung or mounted to a wall. At this time she also created drawings and lithographs of spherical objects appearing as wayward moons or space capsules or rendered odd creatures and alien plant life. These imposing forms brought together Bontecou’s interest in blackholes, deep space and the relationship between drawing and sculpture. Her early work challenged conventions of sculpture and painting, forcing viewers to consider the boundary between these techniques. At what point does a painting become a sculpture? Or, if a sculpture is mounted to a wall does it become a painting? The massive collages of canvas call to mind the early Cubist collages of Picasso and Braque, which incorporated pieces of torn paper and newsprint. Oddly enough she did not always like sculpting and discovered her talent for the medium while studying abroad. She discovered that while, “You can solve an awful lot of problems with the drawing,” says Bontecou, 73, you have to do the sculpture to find out it’s not going to work. Lee Bontecou was an artist who throughly enjoyed process as a means of questioning categories and rules of art making.
In the 1970s, after a star-burst of fame, Lee Bontecou vanished from the art world. Curators and scholars do not like to think of artists as being evasive so it often cited that Bontecou was spending the past few decades working in a remote Pennsylvania barn, which she was. But people like to leave out that she was married, had a daughter and also taught at a university at this time. Bontecou defends herself in an interview for The Chicago Reader against accusations that she “dodged” the art world.
“I just went because I wanted to work, and also I was having a child and all kinds of things. My father was living with us at one point. A lot of things change in your life. And then I was teaching. I hadn’t backed away. You can’t be more involved in the arts than teaching. You’re working with other brains, you know. I was right smack in Brooklyn. People say, “You dodged the art world.” Well, heck, they were the art world. I was the art world. I didn’t dodge it.”
Clearly, she had a life outside of art making and I think it is important to consider this when considering her work. Understanding her motivations helps us understand the intention of her art. The isolation allowed her to carefully balance her work as an artist and teacher with her role as a wife and mother. Her sculptures reflect her life’s balancing acts also by their precarious suspension and tension between sculpture and painting. However, the hiatus did play a part in the lack of enthusiasm of her work.
In 2004, at the request of curator Elizabeth Smith (Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)) Bontecou debuted her latest series of huge, ethereal, wire-and-ceramic sculptures that hang in midair. Bontecou continues to be inspired space and biology and these new works assault the senses like exploding galaxies, or unraveling viruses, or alien insects with bulbous eye pods and antennae. Unveiled in a major coast-to-coast exhibition last October, these sculptures are nothing like the massive steel-and-canvas wall reliefs with ominous “black holes” that brought her renown in the 1960s. These huge wall reliefs are constructed of welded steel covered with cut-up sections of canvas and sometimes encrusted with scrap materials, airplane parts, saw blades or other found objects. Three museum curators who worked on the exhibition (Elizabeth Smith (MCA), Ann Philbin, director of UCLA’s HammerMuseum, Lilian Tone of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)) and all say they felt the same sense of shock when they first saw her new work. “It was an extraordinary moment,” says Elizabeth Smith. Bontecou uses metal as an Abstract Expressionist uses paint. Looking at these works is almost like looking at a 3D rendition of a Pollock painting. Again she threatens the convectional definitions of sculpture and painting. And hopefully this new exhibit will bring Bontecou the fame she deserves for pushing sculpture to its limits. it is high time that Bontecou enjoyed the same level of esteem as her peers Jasper Johns, John Chamberlain, and Robert Rauschenberg. (Notice how these are all men, hmm lets just not open that can of worms yet)
I pasted below an awesome article from the Smithsonian Magazine and an equally awesome interview with Bontecou and Smith from the The Chicago Reader.
And here is a link to the MOMA website where you can look at her amazing works!