Sculptor Lee Bontecou, who retreated from the art scene for three decades, makes a dramatic return as the subject of a major retrospective.
To get to Lee Bontecou’s studio, you take a train from New York, through Philadelphia, past rolling farmlands and small towns and the curious contradictions of the Pennsylvania landscape: the ominous white towers of Three Mile Island on one side, an Amish farmer plowing behind four sturdy horses on the other. From Harrisburg it is another hour and a half, in good traffic, to the modest farmhouse Bontecou shares with her husband, artist Bill Gyles, and the large red barn, recently refurbished by Amish carpenters, that she uses as a work space. The buildings are surrounded by lush gardens, a man-made pond, and an abandoned tennis court, and framed by mature, leafy trees and gentle mountains. An amiable mutt lopes toward the car on three good legs (one was lost a few years ago to a steel trap).
There is little here that doesn’t fit in this scene of Norman Rockwell–like pastoral bliss—except, perhaps, that one of the owners of the property happens to have made some of the most ferocious and memorable sculpture of the second half of the last century. The works, which began emerging from the artist’s New York studio around 1959, were made of canvas and other fabrics, stretched over steel frames and stitched with wire, sometimes incorporating airplane parts, war-surplus materials, laundry–conveyor belts, industrial-saw teeth, and other incongruous objects. They jutted aggressively into the viewer’s space, and their rough-hewn construction and gaping orifices summoned a host of associations, from bottomless craters and menacing engines to vaginae dentatae. Measuring up to five and six feet across, the sculptures caused an immediate stir when they were first shown at Gallery G in New York and a year later, in 1960, at the Leo Castelli Gallery. They continued to make waves through most of that bumptious decade. Even Minimalist Donald Judd took note, pronouncing them “simple, definite, and powerful.”
And then, toward the end of the 1960s, the author of these works changed direction. Bontecou started making vacuum-formed clear-plastic sculptures of outsize fish and flowers, a seemingly radical departure from her signature style, and the reception was less than enthusiastic. As Bontecou matter-of-factly notes, “They were a big flop when Leo showed them.” After her last show at Castelli in 1971, she stopped exhibiting new work for nearly three decades. Her apparent disappearance made her something of a legend, with rumors circulating that Bontecou had retreated to the country for good; that she had stopped sculpting and was making only drawings and ceramics; that she and Castelli had had a huge falling-out; and that she was dedicating herself exclusively to family life. But the real story is considerably more complicated and somewhat difficult to sort out.
In fact, Bontecou continued to work steadily. Except for a recent two-year bout with anemia, she has maintained a regular schedule in her studio. Now, her long career, from her earliest sculptures of animals to the more recent suspended sculptures—big, airy assemblages of wire and bits of mesh and porcelain—is to be the subject of a full-scale retrospective at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, opening the fifth of next month and traveling to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in February 2004, and then on to the Museum of Modern Art in New York next summer. Organized by Elizabeth Smith, the James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator at the MCA, the exhibition will emphasize the continuity of her work—if not in terms of materials, at least in the persistence of certain themes and preoccupations.
Bontecou assiduously steers clear of the art world. She doesn’t read art magazines and claims never to have heard of Matthew Barney or Louise Bourgeois. She goes to New York to visit her daughter, Valerie Gyles, a field biologist at the American Museum of Natural History, but is uninterested in trends, gossip, and the ever-evolving systems for making and showing art. “When I go back and talk to friends, they’re still talking about the same things,” she says. “Not so much about art, but maybe the gallery scene… just the same talk.” A small, trim woman with an agreeably weathered face and short gray hair, Bontecou comes off as somewhat shy but sociable in her worn jeans and oversize sweaters. She cooks with ingredients from her gardens, keeps sensible hours, and obviously enjoys a close relationship with her husband of 36 years, who, unlike Bontecou, has stopped making art for the present. He is now overseeing the construction of a huge new house and studio complex for both of them.
Though this particular rural Eden is just starting to make its way into her work, the natural world has always been a part of who she is as a person and an artist. Born in 1931, Bontecou grew up in Westchester County, New York. She spent long summers with her grandmother in Nova Scotia, where she remembers being exposed to water on all sides, playing on the mud flats, and doing “a lot of clay stuff.” Her father was an engineer who, with his brother, invented the aluminum canoe. During World War II, her mother was an air-raid warden and worked in a factory during the day, wiring submarine parts. In an interview with art historian Mona Hadler, Bontecou confessed to a level of anger over that war, which resurfaced when she was a student and young artist in the 1950s: “All the feelings I’d had then came back to me again.” So the presence of ominous military motifs in her early work—a few years before the zenith of anti–Vietnam War sentiment—is not without its roots in her childhood. Though her art has never been overtly political, she has over the years expressed concerns about the environment and the future of the species.
It was at the Art Students League in New York, where she studied between 1952 and 1955, that Bontecou found her true calling. She was in a painting class and then switched to sculpture, and, as she puts it, “I just never came up from that. I started putting up armatures and working in clay from the model, and I couldn’t stop.” She studied under the Lithuanian-born sculptor William Zorach, who had made his reputation earlier in the century for what art historian Sam Hunter calls “a new candor about the nature of the artist’s materials.” Bontecou has fond memories of Zorach’s encouragement of experimentation: she began welding parts together—“figures, strange shapes”—contrary to traditional techniques of building up a form. Eventually her student efforts led to a two-year Fulbright Fellowship in Rome, where she found a large studio, heated only by a single stove. It was a productive period, in spite of the chilly lodgings, and a series of “grounded birds” in terra-cotta brought a certain amount of attention on the home front (critic and art historian Irving Sandler still remembers them as “rather terrific”). Bontecou says they were grounded for a reason: “None of them could fly, and I made them that way on purpose. What was happening to birds will happen to us all, we’re all getting grounded. The cult of the individual is slowly being quashed.”
Toward the end of her stay in Rome, Bontecou got the idea of drawing with the sooty residue on the extinguished end of an acetylene torch. “In a typical drawing,” records Mona Hadler, “the velvety blacks grade slowly and atmospherically toward a horizon line.” Hadler sees these drawings as the genesis for the big constructions of the 1960s. Back in New York, Bontecou created a group of small box
es whose welded frames are filled in by pieces of muslin and attached to the frame with crude wire “staples.” The canvas itself was sooted black from the torch, and sometimes the interior of the box held a tiny hanging sphere. From there it seemed not such a huge step to making the boxes bigger and more belligerent, incorporating all manner of refuse picked up on scavenging trips.
Though it may seem a stretch from grounded birds to her big, ambitious works of the 1960s, Bontecou doesn’t see her oeuvre as all that discontinuous. She points to an early work in her studio from her student days, a man and seated woman vaguely reminiscent of Henry Moore, composed of small wedges affixed to each other. The process, she implies, is still an additive one, and the same principle underlies her more recent suspended sculptures, although to talk of “recent” is sometimes difficult in Bontecou’s case, because she will work on pieces for years, even decades, before she considers them finished. And in all of her work, especially since the later 1960s, her drawings and sculptures have made reference to the organic.
“Our relationship was in large part centered on learning about the natural world,” recalls her daughter. “It was hands-on stuff, raising things ourselves, looking carefully at amphibians and insects. She has a gift for focusing intensely.” (Bontecou once placed a dead owl in the freezer, in order to study it at a later date.)
When asked if the change in direction in her art—from the bulky and frankly scary constructions to the lighter sculptures of fish and flowers—might have had something to do with marriage and motherhood in 1967, Bontecou is hesitant. “I was pregnant, and I had started the plastic things. I was carrying Val toward the end of that. I don’t think so.” But it’s hard not to see one fish nestled inside another fish, or big flowers sprouting gooey strands from their rounded centers, as somehow emblematic of maternity. As with the sexual connotations attributed to her earlier sculptures, however, the artist is suspicious of entertaining specific readings—and for that reason almost all of her work is untitled. In one of her few published statements, Bontecou commented: “The individual is welcome to see and feel in [these works] what he wishes in terms of himself.”
Through the dealer Dick Bellamy, Bontecou made the acquaintance of Castelli, then at the beginning of his own soon-to-be-stellar career. “I don’t know that any of the other galleries would have taken this stuff,” she recalls. “I don’t think Knoedler [which now represents her] would have looked at it at that time, and I couldn’t get pieces into most conventional galleries.” She showed with Castelli for more than a decade at regular intervals, but with occasional bumpy patches in the relationship. Bontecou recalls friends and collectors wanting to see her drawings in the gallery, but claims that, instead, Castelli would show them only works by Rauschenberg and Johns. “He was obsessed with those two guys,” she says, without bitterness. “I wasn’t singled out. I think everybody got that kind of treatment.” Another time, one of Castelli’s clients wanted her to cut the “box” off one of her constructions so that it would be more or less flush with the wall; she adamantly refused. When she stopped exhibiting new work there in 1971, it was not because of a major feud or rift. “I didn’t want to have any more shows, period.”
But the rumors of a retreat were greatly exaggerated. “The whole time, when people thought she was out of the picture, she was in New York; she was teaching at Brooklyn College, still very much involved with art,” says Smith. “She was simply not part of the art world.” Indeed, her part-time teaching career, which ended with her retirement in 1991, introduced her to ceramics—a teaching requirement—which she incorporates in the suspended sculptures. Porcelain globes and eyeball shapes make up the core of these works, and the pieces are attached throughout by slender metal rods. Viewers may also see in these strange constellations more evidence of Bontecou’s early history. “She remembers her excitement when Sputnik was launched during her stay in Italy,” says Hadler. “The poetic imagery of space, the vastness of the heavens, captured her imagination.”
Aside from offering a chance to see the full gamut of her activities over more than 40 years, the retrospective should appeal to younger audiences and artists. Ten years ago, after Smith organized a small show of Bontecou’s sculpture and drawings in Chicago, she discovered that other artists were very excited by the work. “That’s always been a great sign,” she notes. Among those whom Smith believes have been influenced by Bontecou’s example, if not by her art, are Charles Ray, Lari Pittman, and Kiki Smith. “Something about what she was doing really reverberated with a contemporary sensibility—going back and forth between representation and abstraction, encompassing a broad array of references, incorporating mul-tiple readings,” says Smith. “All this has been important for younger artists.”
“Some have commented that they find her heroic,” Smith continues—“that someone would step away after enjoying a very successful early career. But, in fact, she kept making art because she had to.” As her daughter puts it, “She just worked; it was like breathing.”
Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.