Lee Bontecou’s Brave New World

A star of the 1960s art scene returns with a triumphant exhibition of futuristic works

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Lee Bontecou, who vanished from the art world in the 1970s after a star-burst of fame, has spent the past few decades working in a remote Pennsylvania barn, producing a series of huge, ethereal, wire-and-ceramic sculptures that hang in midair, like exploding galaxies, or unraveling viruses, or alien insects with sci-fi 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, and the three museum curators who worked on the exhibition all say they felt the same sense of shock when they first saw her new work. “It was an extraordinary moment,” says Elizabeth Smith of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Ann Philbin, director of UCLA’s HammerMuseum, says she almost fainted. And Lilian Tone of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) says, “I was floored. ‘Floored’ isn’t even the word.” There is as yet no name for what Bontecou is showing us, only an invitation to look at sculpture in a new way.

Bontecou’s self-imposed exile, and her return, have lent an air of mystery and excitement to the exhibition “Lee Bontecou: ARetrospective,” and if she is again being treated as something of a celebrity, it’s the last thing she says she wants. “I never wanted to be a star,” she insists. “It’s the art that is the star.” The show, which includes more than 100 of her sculptures and drawings, is on view at MOMA, Queens, through September 27, after runs at the Hammer and the MCA, which co-organized the exhibition.

The connection between drawing and sculpture holds the key to Bontecou’s art. Her huge wall reliefs, 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, call to mind the early Cubist collages of Picasso and Braque, which incorporated pieces of torn paper and newsprint. “You can solve an awful lot of problems with the drawing,” says Bontecou, 73, “rather than do the sculpture and find out it’s not going to work.” Yet just as her sculpture is probing the future, her drawings display old-master draftsmanship. Looking at one as it was placed on the wall of the MCA, chief curator Smith, who first conceived of this exhibition, exclaimed, “It could almost be a page out of Leonardo’s sketchbooks!” Of Bontecou’s reliefs, Smith adds: “She’s drawing with metal, she’s painting with canvas. One of the things she pioneered was to get sculpture off the ground, to make something that was neither a painting nor a sculpture, but something in between.”

After getting sculpture off the floor, which seemed liberating in the 1960s, Bontecou next wanted to get it away from the wall, as if drawing with wire in thin air. “I just got tired of sculpture as a big thing in the middle of a room,” she says. “I wanted it to go into space.” To that end, she looked to a world of lunar modules and Mars rovers, of microbes seen through electron microscopes, of double helixes and fractal dimensions revealed by computers, and of the cosmos laid bare by the Hubble telescope. What her eye took in, her hands began to shape.

Bontecou was using new imagery to make a statement as old as art itself, about what she calls “the wonders and horrors” of nature, technology and the human heart. “Look at the stealth bomber,” she says. “It’s a beautiful thing up in the air, a piece of sculpture! But what it does is horror!” She sees its duality as a metaphor for all of us, for human nature.

A few days before her exhibition opened in Chicago, Bontecou showed up to look at the installation and repair a couple of hanging sculptures damaged during the move from Los Angeles. A petite woman with gray hair and a pixie grin, she sports the same pageboy haircut and blue jeans she wore on the pages of LIFE magazine 40 years ago. At the museum, she fit right in with the installation crew, picking up some pliers and tape from a tool cart and inserting loose wires into their ceramic connectors. Some of her constructions are so complex that even Bontecou occasionally goes blank for a moment, pausing to ask herself, What was I doing over here?

She is a meticulous craftswoman, and her work has always left the traces of its making exposed—all the stitches, scorch marks, twists and windings of wire. When one of the crew showed her a tray of glues and pastes used in conserving artwork, Bontecou studied the labels and asked for something else. “See if you can find that paste used by plumbers,” she said. “Plumbers,” she repeated, “not electricians.” Having lived in the country all those years, Bontecou knows how to fix things. The crew was impressed. “We’re really enjoying working on this show,” said Brad Martin, who supervised the installation. “Here’s an artist who actually makes her own work. That’s really old school! A lot of contemporary artists don’t know how to do that.”

Bontecou worked on the larger of her new sculptures for more than ten years, building each of them outward from a ceramic core suspended from the rafters of her barn. “As I add things on,” she says, “I see how it will float, or fly. It grows, and I fight and fight, and sometimes it just won’t come and I want to throw bricks! Then, if it sits around long enough, I just see something and off it goes. And then it starts taking over and I’m not even in there.”

Her days on the farm, with her artist husband, Bill Giles, and daughter, Valerie, now 37, were often consumed by raising vegetables, tinkering with tractors, and all the other chores of a self-sufficient rural life. She turned into a sculptor after dark. “Making the new pieces,” she says, “I’d work at it at night and get the light right, and it was like magic. I’d just put one of these little ceramic pieces here or there, and you couldn’t see the wire that attached it. All you’d see were these little white things floating. And then I’d move the light, and the ‘drawing’ of the wire would hit the wall, and I’d think, That’s better than the sculpture! That’s a great drawing!”

Illusions and shadows, light and dark, have been part of Bontecou’s art from the beginning. She traces this back to her childhood during World War II, when her mother worked in a plant building submarine transmitters and her father worked for Grumman Aircraft. Although her family lived outside New York City, they spent summers with her grandmother on an island off the coast of Nova Scotia. “It was a little island,” she recalls, “and it was just complete freedom. The cows ran free, the chickens ran free, the kids ran free. And the tides came in and out and the water was all around you—but there were the German U-boats out there.”

Bontecou also recalls newspaper photographs of the concentration camps at war’s end—“looking at those poor dead skeleton people. . . . I’ll never forget it,” she says. “So it’s not hard to figure out all the war imagery in my early work.” At BradfordCollege in Massachusetts, she studied art, but couldn’t stand the class in sculpture. It was after college, while enrolled at the Art Students League in New York City, that she wandered into the basement sculpture studio one day and found her métier. “It was a dungeon,” she recalls, “but I just knew it was for me.” A spell at the SkowhegenSchool in Maine, where she learned welding, was followed by a Fulbright grant that sent her off to Rome for two years.

There, she was taken with the elongated sculptures of Alberto Giacometti and the ancient Etruscan art that had inspired him. She set to work on a series of bird and animal forms that reflects those influences; primitive yet fractured figures with bodies of welded steel and concrete, and skins of shattered terra cotta. But she was about to make a jump, as Giacometti had, into a vision all her own. Decades apart, the two artists seem to have found their future in a moment of hallucination. Young Giacometti described a vision on the streets of Padua in 1920. As he was walking behind several girls, they suddenly seemed to lose all proportion, appearing immense, and striking fear into him as he stared at them like a madman. Giacometti spent the rest of his life grappling with perceptions and proportions of the human figure in his sculptures. Bontecou’s vision came 37 years later as she was walking across the Piazza Navona in Rome. “It was in the winter, cold, no one there,” she recalls, “and as I walked across it I felt like one of Giacometti’s little men, and I just felt like . . . springing! I thought, Well, here’s old Giacometti jumping across his piazzas! It just was part of me. It was like all the cobbles became really light and I was on a trampoline. The piazza was beautiful, and it was like I was in a big box, but I had that freedom, jumping.”

Her first artistic leap came in her Rome studio with a welding torch. The torch used a mixture of oxygen and acetylene, and as Bontecou turned off the oxygen, the acetylene flame spewed a jet of soot across the floor. Aiming it at a sheet of paper, she turned the accident into art. “I just started drawing with it, and I had to keep the torch moving. I burned up a lot of paper!” she recalls. “Then I got thicker paper that resisted the flame more, and it was an incredible black, it was just beautiful. I made a lot of drawings with it.”

The drawings looked like abstract landscapes, or the terrain of some science-fiction planet. Inspired in part by the Russian spacecraft Sputnik’s pioneering orbiting of the earth at the time, she called them Worldscapes. “It was like outerspace drawing,” she says, “where you could either go into the black or be repelled by it. With a pencil or even paint you couldn’t get that depth. I knew it was the beginning of something, but I didn’t know what.” Returning to New York in 1958 with her soot drawings and torch, she would find out.

She rented a cheap loft over a steam laundry on the city’s Lower East Side, and she discovered she could leap into space in her sculptures too. She started making small boxes by welding a steel frame and covering all the sides in canvas—with a circular hole cut in one side to allow viewers to see into the black interior. “To me it was like the whole universe,” she says. “It was exciting. I kept dreaming and dreaming about these things, and then they got bigger.” Bontecou used scraps of canvas from discarded laundry bags and conveyor belts, which she cut apart and wired to increasingly complicated steel constructions, always with that black hole in their midst. Instead of boxes on legs, the sculptures became large reliefs on her studio wall, and she lined the interiors with black velvet to keep the holes black. She was at work on these sculptures when she heard on the radio that astronomers were searching for mysterious objects out in space they called “black holes.” It was as if her art had collided with the cosmos. “I thought, Oh yes! Thank you!” she recalls.

Bontecou’s sculptures stunned the New York City art world. Among the gallery owners who made their way to her studio was Leo Castelli, who had helped make stars of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Castelli put her in a group show in May 1960 and gave her a solo show the following November. The influential magazine Art in America dubbed her “the find of the year,” and her work was included in major exhibitions here and abroad, including three at the Whitney Museum of American Art and two at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Architect Philip Johnson commissioned a piece for the lobby of his New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, and later said her sculpture—which included part of a World War II bomber as well as her trademark black hole—fit into his design as perfectly as “a baroque statue in the niche of a baroque hall.”

But Bontecou says she was after freedom, not fame, and that fame began to feel like a trap. She recalls Castelli asking her to alter one of her sculptures for a buyer so it would take up less space; she refused. She thought, “Maybe he’s just selling things!” And then she made a series of strange plastic fish (one critic called them “Frankenfish”) and flowers (with gas masks and dangling life-support tubes) that were nothing like her previous work. Most critics were dismayed. “I got to a point with the reliefs where I sort of felt, hmm, that’s good for now,” she says. “But the gallery wanted me to keep going. More! Do more! And when those flowers appeared, that was a no-no! But I needed time to experiment, to change.”

Bontecou had thrilled to the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s—Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline. “They’d get drunk and be spouting art, not gallery talk!” she says. “They were just so alive, and the paintings were. I loved it. I got energy from it.” But in the ’60s, she grew disillusioned with what she saw as a rampant commercialism. “That sort of passion dried up, with all these younger artists talking about sales, all clawing to the top. That was sad for me.” In 1965 she married fellow artist William Giles, who had also shown at Castelli’s gallery. The birth of their daughter, Valerie, and the purchase of an old farm in Pennsylvania, where they could spend weekends and summers, further fueled Bontecou’s wish to escape. “I didn’t want to show anymore for a while. Bill and I had a little baby,” she says. “It was like the best piece of sculpture I ever made. And it was the most natural and easiest.” The family moved to Long Island, and Bontecou got a job teaching art at Brooklyn College “as a way of having no galleries.” In the following years they moved several times, while Bontecou commuted two days a week to Brooklyn to teach. When she retired from teaching in 1991, they moved to their farm for good.

Valerie, a field biologist, who worked most recently as a scientific assistant at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, recalls “these two people who were equal, they were best friends. They were always working, always. Whether it was things that drove them crazy, like fixing a tractor or painting a house, they’d sweat and swear over it—they never had anybody do anything. They always were independent, independent, independent.”

As Bontecou worked on new sculptures, year after year, firing constellations of tiny porcelain balls in her kiln or welding her webs of wire, the art world had no idea where she was or what she was up to. From time to time a curator somewhere might think about putting together a Bontecou exhibition; most gave up because they couldn’t find her. Then, in 1993, Elizabeth Smith, at the time a young curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, decided to mount a small exhibition of her work with or without Bontecou’s participation. “It’s kind of unheard of,” she says, “to do a show of a living artist’s work without the artist being involved in it, but I just kept going. I tried to find where Lee was, but no one seemed to know.” After months of futile detective work, she tracked down Bontecou’s address.

“So I started writing to her and didn’t get any response. I kept sending her updates anyway. Finally, when I wrote the text for the show’s brochure, I sent it to her and asked her for any corrections or comments. And one day the phone rang and it was Lee Bontecou on the other end! I just about fell off my chair. We had a very nice conversation about the text, and from then on we started to communicate.”

Bontecou came to Los Angeles for the show. “I was so nervous about meeting this reclusive person,” Smith recalls, “and she was so shy she didn’t want to come when the museum was open, with people around.” Though she said she liked the show, Bontecou quickly retreated to her farm. In 1999, Smith moved to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and sent out change-of-address letters. Bontecou wrote back, inviting her to visit the farm. But before Smith could get there, Bontecou was stricken with aplastic anemia, a life-threatening illness. “At first I was thinking, This old age is really getting me!” she remembers. “When I was pitching hay, every pitch I’d have to rest.” Soon she was hospitalized, getting blood transfusions every three days, and getting worse. “The doctor gave up,” she says, “and I didn’t know if I’d make it or not. And that was when I thought, Well, I’ve got to get rid of this stuff, so Bill and Val won’t be stuck with it!”

Bontecou’s husband researched alternative therapies for her, and she recovered. In 2000, Smith finally stepped into the barn. “I saw the things she had made over the years,” she says, “and I knew nobody in my position had seen all this work. I realized this was an amazing opportunity, and I just blurted out, ‘Lee, would you consider having a show of all your work?’ And she said yes.”

In Chicago, walking through the exhibition with Bontecou, I look up at one of her new sculptures and suddenly understand her love of the Abstract Expressionists of her youth. If flattened out, this hanging constellation of porcelain and wire, with fragments of wire mesh, strips of cloth and streaks of color, would look like a Pollock action painting. It’s as if she’s lifted a Pollock painting off the canvas and up into the air, taking the freedom the Abstract Expressionists taught her into new dimensions. “Yes,” Bontecou agrees, then adds that she hasn’t gone as far as she’d like to with her latest sculptures: “I even wanted to shatter them more. I mean, they are kind of shattered, but somehow they’re still whole. I haven’t done that yet.”

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