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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“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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