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.