Thursday, December 9, 2010

The *Discovery* of Lee Bontecou

I'm still in the depths of the Castelli book, but before I go into greater discussion of it, I thought you might be interested in a story about the "discovery" of Lee Bontecou. Bontecou showed her work at the Castelli Gallery for 11 years and was one of very few successful women artists in the 1960s. I wrote about her this past summer here and here. I had wondered how she ever cracked the wall of discrimination against women at that time, and in this book I found the answer.

Lee Bontecou in her Wooster Street studio early 1960s. She moved to this studio after being taken on by Castelli.

The Real Director
Ivan Karp was co-director of the Castelli Gallery from 1959 to 1969 (and subsequently founded O.K. Harris gallery in Soho in 1969). As described in the Castelli bio, Karp was brought in to run the gallery by Ileana and Michael Sonnabend because Castelli was such a poor businessman. (Note: Ileana was Castelli's first wife and long-time friend.)

Ivan Karp with Andy Warhol (also represented by Castelli)

Karp actually ran the gallery and describes himself as not having "an actual title. I was just there. I received the people. I was the cushion. I was able to deal with obnoxious characters.Sometimes Leo would hide in the corner of his office. People would come and see me first, and I would entertain them. There were collectors with questions, there were artists who would show me slides--and if the work was exceptional, I would show it to Leo. I did the preliminary job, I would filter the personalities, the characters. Leo would also come with me to see three or four studios on Saturday morning." (p. 259)
Incredible Things
Ivan Karp was the person who brought Lee Bontecou to the Castelli Gallery. His description of seeing Bontecou's studio reminded me of Howard Carter opening Tutanhkamun's tomb:

"The gallerist Dick Bellamy told me he had visited a studio in the lower, really dark depths of the Lower East Side, Avenue B or C, which still retains that medieval cast about it. Dick said he had gone there to visit a girl in a loft on the top, and on the way down there was a door open to a studio. The building wasn't heated and everybody kept their doors open to get the heat from a laundry on the first floor. So Dick looked through and he saw these incredible tent-like apparatuses. And he said that if I should ever go to that building I should try to see these things." (p. 259)

One of Bontecou's early works that used canvas from the downstairs laundry (Image photographed from  "Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective" - link here)

Overwhelmed and Unsettled
"The first day I went it was in midwinter, very cold, and the building was violently vibrating from the laundry machinery. I knocked on the door of this studio and a very delicate little girl-like creature came to the door. I said to her: 'I'm looking for the artist who works in this studio, a certain Miss Bontecou, I believe it is. Is she at home? Is she your mother? And she said, 'No, no, I'm Miss Bontecou.' She looked to me like a fourteen-year-old girl, a very fragile creature, with a very delicate face and straight blond hair. I remember going in there and seeing these tent-like structures with their fierce aperatures, and in contrast to them this little girl. It was rather overwhelming. I was unsettled for a week by the confrontation of these objects and delicate, pale, little Miss Bontecour there." (p. 260)

Bontecou in her Wooster Street studio, 1962

A Logical Power About Them
Karp made another visit to Bontecou's studio soon afterwards accompanied by Castelli, and Ileana and Michael Sonnabend. The group didn't know what to make of the contrast between her soft-spoken manner and the "scary" work. Michael Sonnabend "felt very strongly about them. He said they had a kind of logical power that was really more than he had seen in years. Leo was very brave in inviting those works to come into the gallery. They really seemed terribly alien to anything we had ever seen."

Another studio shot from the early 1960s

My photo from the Lee Bontecou show at MoMA July 2010

Another untitled work from the MoMA show

Instant Success
When the first two pieces of Bontecou's works were delivered to the Castelli Gallery, there happened to be two museum officials present at the time. Karp says that he and Castelli were doubtful about how her work would look in "this fragile gallery space," but as soon as they were brought in, "they were really transformed in that setting. They were capable of being seen. They had their clarity and they had their object power. And within seven minutes of their being brought into the room, both works had been purchased by the two museum officials sitting there. We concluded the deal there, without even a show or any promotion!" (p. 261)

For Your Video Obsession
In my earlier blog posts (linked in the first paragraph) I recounted what happened to Bontecou's career when she changed styles and decided to leave the commercial art world. To supplement this post about Bontecou's early career, I just discovered a succinct, 5-minute YouTube video by Veronica Roberts, curator of "All Freedom In Every Sense," the small MoMA show of Bontecou's work this past summer.


Eileen P Goldenberg said...

Wow! thanks Nancy, a well known successful woman artist that I have never heard of. The video is very good.

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of inspiration here. Maybe I'll just start the Castelli book on page 259? Thanks for sharing. BTW you're post is also on the Painters Table website, good going!

Nancy Natale said...

Thanks, guys. Yes, start the book once it gets good. Skip that stuff in the front. Too dense.

Wendy Rodrigue Magnus said...

Such an interesting post, Nancy. And the video especially is a wonderful tool towards better understanding Bontecou and her work. I loved the vision of her as a tiny person amidst her powerful creations, and holding a blow torch.

I also had to laugh at Karp's description of his gallery role. We don't use titles either. Instead we say, "there's the artist; and then there's everybody else."

Thank you for sharing-

donald said...

I've only just found this post and an completely taken by it. Thank you