Born in 1931, in Providence, RI; daughter of Russell Bontecou (a salesman); married William Giles (an artist), 1965; children: Valerie. Education: Graduated from Bedford Junior College, 1952; studied art at Arts Students League of New York; studied metal welding at Skowhegan Art School.
Gallery—c/o Knoedler Gallery, 19 E. 70th St., New York, NY 10021.
Became interested in art, c. 1950; artist in New York City, NY, and PA, c. 1952—first group exhibition, Castelli Gallery, 1959; first solo exhibition, Castelli Gallery, 1960; art teacher at Brooklyn College, 1971–91.
Artist Lee Bontecou was a popular figure in the New York art world from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, in part because of her unique constructions and sculptures as well as her intense drawings. She dropped out of the art scene in the early 1970s to work on her art out of the limelight and at her own pace. Though she primarily lived on a farm in Pennsylvania and focused much of her energy on raising her daughter, she also found time to teach art for 20 years at the Brooklyn College. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Bontecou's work was re-discovered and she was the subject of a career retrospective in 2003. Considered one of the most important, original sculptors of her generation, Dodie Kazanjian described Bontecou's art in Vogue: "Her work is sui generis, entirely her own in its constant oscillation between abstract and figurative, toughness and lyricism, the intimate and the infinite, the natural world and the world of her imagination."
Born in 1931 in Providence, Rhode Island, Bontecou was the daughter of Russell Bontecou, a salesman who loved fishing. Bontecou's father and her uncle helped invent and later sell the aluminum canoe. She and her older brother, Frank, were raised in Westchester County, New York, where she attended public schools. Summers were spent with her grandmother in Nova Scotia, Canada. As a child, she was very attracted to natural history, which would later inform her work as did machines, especially those created for the war effort. She was also influenced by World War II, which was fought during her childhood. Her mother worked in a factory wiring submarine parts.
Bontecou was not particularly interested in art until she went to college. She took her first art class at Bedford Junior College. After Bontecou graduated from that Massachusetts–based school in 1952, she moved to New York City. There, she spent three years studying at the Arts Student League in New York City, while working to support herself. She also spent one summer at Maine's Skowhegan Art School learning to do metal welding on scholarship. While there, she created a partially abstract sculpture in cast iron of a man who was 13 feet tall. As a young artist, Surrealists, especially Alberto Giacometti, were among her influences.
From 1957–58, Bontecou lived in Rome, Italy, studying art on a Fulbright Scholarship. There, she began experimenting with black in drawings. She began creating soot drawings by employing an acetylene torch but turning down the oxygen to create a uniquely deep black. The black had depth and a velvet look that slowly graduated. The drawings that Bontecou created using this technique were called "worldscapes." This discovery changed the way she looked at her world. In Italy, she also created some animals, birds, and people in semi–abstract form primarily in terra cotta, but also a few cast in bronze.
When Bontecou returned to New York City in 1958, she continued to experiment with black in drawings. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, she also moved from worldscapes to bigger constructions, with black still a key feature. Her first important works in the art world were wall constructions fabricated primarily from found objects. Living above a laundry, she used worn–out laundry conveyor belts made of heavy canvas, as well as canvas and/or muslin, airplane parts, industrial sawtooths, and black velvet. Bontecou sewed or constructed these materials together with copper wire on steel frames. The finished works projected out several feet from the wall and into the viewers' space.
These works and others were shown at her first show, a group show, at Leo Castelli's gallery in New York in 1959. Castelli, one of the most high profile and highly respected dealers of new art of the time, gave her a solo show in 1960. Bontecou's work received much critical praise and soon made her a popular figure on the New York art scene. Years later, her work was still praised. Reviewing Bontecou's 2003 retrospective, Doug Harvey of LA Weekly wrote, "Her large, labor–intensive wall reliefs—constructed from fragments of worn and dis-colored canvas stretched and attached with twisted wire onto elaborately welded geometric steel structures, almost invariably framing a central circular void darkened with black soot—struck a disturbing balance between a delicate but assured abstract formal genius and a brooding fascination with the visual vocabulary of the military–industrial complex."
By the early 1960s, Bontecou was regarded as a connection between 1950s Abstract Expressionism and pop art and minimalism that was becoming popular in the 1960s. She continued to create constructions, welding frames into shapes and attaching found materials to it. Many of her works in this time period featured handles, grommets, canvas straps, and other materials available at hardware stores and Army surplus stores. Bontecou's works in this time period included "The Prisons," which consisted of small rectangular metal pieces, and 1961's "Untitled," which had iron bars forming a vertical grid with a figure trapped behind them. Museums began buying her work, and she was included in a 1961 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, The Age of Assemblage.
Bontecou was commissioned to create art by the mid–1960s. One of her better–known works was a large relief created for the New York State Theater Lobby in New York City's Lincoln Center. This was one of the largest pieces she ever did, and it was created using a banner and other airplane parts from a World War II–era bomber. The finished product looked like an airplane wing. At the time, Bontecou was fascinated with jets taking off and would watch them on a regular basis. She also made model airplanes in her spare time.
Bontecou's other works in this time period were also influenced by airplanes and their materials. In addition being more streamlined, aerodynamic, and full of metallic elements, many of her canvas works featured panels that were tinted in shades of grays and blacks. She also began using hardwood and was sometimes influenced by architecture. Bontecou's sculptures continued to evolve from the abstract to include plants, insects, and undersea creatures in her forms. Though most of Bontecou's work consisted of constructions, she always continued to draw.
Though Bontecou had some artist friends, she gradually began withdrawing from the art world by the late 1960s. She slowly went to fewer shows and soon became out of touch with what other artists were doing. She already had a farm in rural Pennsylvania, and growing less enchanted with New York City. Her personal life began changing. After being friends with artist William Giles for several years, the pair became a couple in 1964 and married the following year. In 1966, Bontecou gave birth to their daughter, Valerie. By this time, the family had moved out of New York and lived variously in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; Long Island; Rockland County, New York; and Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, before settling permanently on their farm.
Bontecou still showed her work through the early 1970s in New York City. By this time, she was experimenting with carving objects out of Styrofoam and placing them in a vacuum press. In this process, she created plastic fish, flowers, and plants, some of which were very large. One work from 1970 featured a plastic fish hanging from the ceiling with the tail of another fish in its mouth. Her comment on the way the world was changing and becoming very plastic was not well–received at the time, though this social commentary was later regarded as meaningful, innovative, and political. Her last exhibit for many years came in 1971 and featured the plastic flowers and fish.
Negative criticism was not the reason why Bontecou dropped out of the art scene for many years. She wanted to work at her own pace instead of meeting the demands of a gallery–shown artist. She also wanted to raise her daughter and play a large role in her life, and took care of her ill father during the last years of his life. Though some critics believed otherwise, Bontecou did not disappear entirely. In 1971, she took a job as an art teacher at the Brooklyn College. There, she taught design, sculpture, and drawing for the next 20 years. She commuted from her farm to the city a few days a week to meet the requirements of teaching.
While Bontecou was out of the art scene, the museums that had bought her work in the 1960s did not display it very often in the 1970s and 1980s, and she fell off the art radar. Though the art world had basically forgotten her, she continued to create works on her own, primarily small sculptures and drawings, that were influenced by both industry and nature. Her sculptures in the 1980s and 1990s were constructions of steel wires with other elements worked into them that included smaller metal or ceramic pieces and wire mesh. Bontecou's larger sculptures often had a natural form to them while the smaller works were more abstract. Some pieces were mobile reliefs; many were complex and very original. As the 2000s approached, Bontecou's work featured skulls, skeletal structures, and animal bones in her delicate sculptures of wire, porcelain beads, and cloth with some color. She created these works in her private studio located in a barn on her farm. In 1993, Bontecou's profile was raised when the Los Angeles–based Museum of Contemporary Art featured a retrospective of some of her work from the 1960s and 1970s, both reliefs and drawings, that later moved to the Parrish Art Museum. It was her first show in 16 years. Bontecou did not organize it and none of her post–early 1970s work was included. At the time, she was adamant about not displaying her "new" work. Her attitude changed after she suffered a life–threatening illness in the late 1990s and early 2000s. She suffered from aplastic anemia, a disease of the bone marrow, but was nursed back to health by her husband. The incident prompted her to access the whole of her career.
By the early 2000s, Bontecou allowed her new works to be shown as part of exhibits about her career. A display of 27 of her drawings, some recent, was shown at the Daniel Weinberg Gallery in Los Angeles, California, in 2001. The pieces showed Bontecou's skill in this area, but also reflected her style in her sculptures and reliefs. Reviewing the show, Christopher Miles of Artforum International wrote, "The drawings involve strange jumblings of serene and sinister, sensual and clinical, comical and foreboding. And all reflect Bontecou's odd penchant for mixing feminine with masculine and hybridizing attributes of the natural with those of the machine–made, and the machine itself."
Bontecou also played a hand in organizing her first major retrospective, which was organized at the Hammer Museum at the University of California at Los Angeles in 2002. About half of the show included post–1971 works, many of which had never been displayed before. There was some controversy for the artist. She was offended by an essay included in the show's catalog that was written by New York art critic Robert Storr that featured commentary on her, her career, and influences. She wrote an "Artist's Statement" to indirectly address related issues, including her influences and decision to drop out of the art scene for so long. Despite this problem, the show and her work were praised by critics. Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Bontecou's art is a masterful tour de force, mesmerizing and poignant."
With the success of this retrospective, Bontecou began showing at a gallery in New York City again. She agreed to work with the Knoedler Gallery, and among her first shows there was a display of her drawings in 2004. Of her decades–long withdrawal from the art scene, she was quoted by Calvin Tomkins of the New Yorker as saying "I've never left the art world. I'm in the real art world."
Castelli Gallery (group shows), 1959, 1994; (solo shows), 1960–71, 2000.
(With others) The Art of Assemblage, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, 1961.
(With others) Americans 1963, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, 1963.
Museum of Contemporary Art (mid–career retrospective), Chicago, IL, 1972.
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA, 1993, then Parrish Museum of Art.
The Daniel Weinberg Gallery (drawings), Los Angeles, CA, 2001.
Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective, Hammer Museum, University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, 2002, then Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL, 2002–03, then Museum of Modern Arts, New York City, 2003.
Knoedler Gallery (drawings), New York City, 2004.
Artforum International, December 2001, p. 125.
Art in America, December 1994, p. 99; February 2000, p. 122.
Art Journal, Winter 1994, p. 56.
LA Weekly, October 3, 2003.
Los Angeles Times, October 4, 2003, p. E1; October 7, 2003, p. E1.
Newsweek, December 15, 2003, p. 66.
New Yorker, August 4, 2003, p. 36.
New York Times, October 3, 1993, sec. 2, p. 42; October 5, 2003, p. AR34.
San Diego Union–Tribune, October 19, 2003, p. F4.
Time, October 13, 2003, pp. 77–78.
Vogue, March 2004, pp. 532–37.