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Lee Bontecou's Brave New World

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

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.”

 

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