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.