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.