Sunday, August 8, 2010

Lee Bontecou - Personal Inspiration - Part 2

Lee Bontecou at work on a large sculpture in her Wooster Street studio in NYC, 1963. Detail from a photo by Hans Namuth. Rephotographed by me from Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective. (More about this book below.)

History and biography appeal to me for the record they keep of lives and cultures. Artists' biographies make the most fascinating of any of this reading, and I love seeing how their lives and works intersect.

Somewhere I had seen images of some of Bontecou's work a few years ago and tried to find a book featuring more of it. The only one I could find was too expensive for me until Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective was published in paperback in 2008 by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Here's the Amazon link for it. It will probably be the best $35 you'll ever spend if you are as much of a fan of Bontecou's work as I am.

A beautiful book showing Bontecou's wonderful work


Lee Bontecou's career as an artist has been anything but the norm. She hit it big early on, having her first solo show at Leo Castelli's Gallery in 1960 at age 29, and continuing to show there until 1971. Right along with all the now-famous (male) names like John Chamberlain, Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, Claes Olderburg, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, George Segal, Frank Stell and Andy Warhol, she was featured in the celebrity-building New York: The New Art Scene by photographer Ugo Mulas in 1963. Philip Johnson, noted architect and art promoter, commissioned Bontecou to create a 20-foot-wide piece for his New York State Theatre at the Lincoln Center complex (image later in this post) in 1964. Donald Judd was a huge admirer of her work, citing her as "one of the best artists working anywhere," and wrote about her work in several essays, including one in Arts Magazine in 1965.

Early work completed during a Fulbright Scholarship in Rome, 1957. These birds and animals were constructed of terra cotta segments over welded metal frames.

Bontecou in her Rome studio, 1957

Early, simplified works using canvas over welded steel frames, 1959. The blackness in the central voids came from black paint or black velvet.

Early constructions in which Bontecou worked out the layering of dimension that invoked cubistic divisions of form. and space, 1959

1961, welded steel, soot on canvas and wire, 28 1/2 x 15 1/2 x 17 3/4 inches. (Note that distortion of the form is caused by my photo of the open book. The piece is actually not distorted like this.) Owned by University of Wisconsin.

Constructions from 1960 and 1961 that referenced gas masks. (Today we might think of Hannibal Lector.)

Gas Mask drawings 1961

Another of Bontecou's detailed pencil drawings showing ideas that also emerged in her sculpture, 1961

1961, Welded steel, canvas, wire and velvet, 56 x 39 1/2 x 211/8 inches. Owned by Walker Art Center.

Bontecou's Wooster Street studio, 1962.

Her work was included in three Whitney Museum annuals, in dozens of important shows in the U.S. and overseas, including MoMA's "The Art of Assemblage" in 1961 and "Americans, 1963." She was written up in Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Life and other magazines that played up the contrast between her diminutive size, "tomboy looks" and shy demeanor against "the imposing scale and implied violence in her dark and threatening reliefs" (art historian Alan Solomon quoted by Calvin Thompkins in The New Yorker, August 2003).

The piece commissioned for Lincoln center, 1964, 21 1/3 x 5 1/2 x 2 feet. It contained  the Plexiglas part of a WW II aircraft canopy. It first appears symmetrical but then reveals its intriguing asymmetry and inventive passages. Architect Philip Johnson, who commissioned the work for his building, described it as "being so well-suited to the architecture of its setting that it resembled "a baroque statue in the niche of a baroque hall." (quoted by Elizabeth Smith in her essay in The Book.)

Bontecou in her Wooster Street, NY studio, 1963, photographed by Ugo Mulas

This piece appears at the left of the photo above in Bontecou's studio. This has always been one of my favorites. It is composed of welded steel, canvas, epoxy and wire. I think it has a vaguely Egyptian appearance.

This large 1966 piece is the only work in which Bontecou installed interior lighting (size 78 1/2 x 119 x 31 inches). Owned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Another one of Bontecou's works of the period that looks Egyptian to me - 1967, welded steel, wood and silk, 26 1/2 x 11 x 11 inches). Owned by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian Institution.

But a funny thing happened in 1971 when Bontecou's show at Leo Castelli Gallery suddenly looked very different from her earlier work. The critics hated it but Bontecou didn't want her work pigeonholed. She decided to go her own way and quietly continue working in her studio without pressure of gallery shows and critics' expectations. She got a teaching job at Brooklyn College and commuted there during the week from her rural home in Pennsylvania, where she lived with her husband, William Giles, another independent-spirit of an artist, and their daughter Valerie.

This is the only image I could find for William Giles' work - from AskArt. There was no info on size or materials.

By 1977 when Passages in Modern Sculpture, a survey of contemporary sculpture by Rosalind Kraus, was published, Bontecou went unmentioned. Robert Storr says that this book "established the canon for many curators and critics with power in or over major institutions....To be left out of the book meant oblivion in many academic circles where histories are constructed, and a number of artists of the transitional mid-1950 to mid-1960s who are presently reemerging alongside Bontecou shared her fate, principally Yayoi Kusama and H. C. Westermann. When Bontecou entered discussion in these early years of the 'postmodern' era, it was in the writings of feminists, notably Lucy Lippard, who pointed out Eva Hesse's interest in and debt to her, and in the 1975 publication of Donald Judd's collected art criticism."

Two vacuum-formed plastic pieces, left 1969 and right 1968. Left 21 x 7 x 9 inches, right 21 x 10 x 9 inches

Another vacuum-formed plastic piece from 1969, 30 x 13 x 12 inches.

Vacuum-formed fish, 1970, 30 x 57 x 24 inches

Detail from back cover of The Book showing how individual plastic sheets were joined to the fish's body. If the plastic was canvas and the rivets were wire, the method of attachment would be the same as in Bontecou's earlier work where pieces of canvas were fastened to steel frames.

These works were inspired by Bontecou's investigation of nature and of a new process for forming plastic, a lightweight, see-through material that seemed to belong to the newly-evolving Space Age. Elizabeth Smith says of this work:

These are among Bontecou's most enigmatic and arresting works. Frankly representational, they embody curiously disturbing interpretations of their subjects; the fish are sharply scaled, with ferocious teeth, and are shown in the act of swallowing and ingesting smaller species, while the flowers and plants, revealing affinities to internal organs, appear sinister and mutated - one wears a gas mask. Contemporary with the publication of Rachel Carson's influential late 1960s treatise on the dangers of pesticides, Silent Spring, this body of Bontecou's sculptures directly reflects the negative implications of humans' degredation of the natural world.
(The Book, p. 177.)

The show in 1971 in which Bontecou presented these works was her last solo show in New York for thirty years.

1982, colored pencil on paper 24 x 36 inches. (excuse my distortion)

1984, casein on primed plastic paper, 15 x 12 inches

1989, colored pencil on paper, 20 x 28 inches

1986-2002, welded steel, porcelain and wire, 38 x29x 17 inches

1983, welded steel, porcelain, cloth, wire mesh and wire, 23 x 23 x 23 inches

1994, steel, porcelain, string and wire, 10 1/2 x 15 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches

1995, colored pencil on paper, 18 x 24 (sorry for the distortion)

1986-2002, welded steel, porcelain and wire, 13 x20 x 16 inches

1994, welded steel, porcelain, wire mesh, silk and wire, 22 x29 x 17 inches

For about the next fifteen years, Bontecou taught at Brooklyn College, commuting there from various parts of New York and Pennsylvania, while caring for her husband, daughter and aging father and pursuing her private studio work in drawing and sculpture. After retiring from Brooklyn College in 1991, Bontecou returned to her studio to continue work on sculptures she had begun 10 or more years earlier. She makes all aspects of her own work, firing the porcelain parts in a kiln and working for months to build up the obsessively detailed and intricate hanging sculptures such as the one currently on display at MoMA.

Bontecou's studio in Pennsylvania  in a 2003 photo by Bill Brown (be sure to enlarge this - it's fabulous.)

Here's a description of what it was like to walk into Bontecou's studio in 2003 by Calvin Thompkins in The New Yorker:

...and Lee and I walked over to her present studio, in a red barn. The studio is somewhat makeshift and ramshackle, with a smallish room on the ground floor, where she does welding and fires her ceramics, and a larger room up a flight of open plank stairs, where she draws and works on the sculptures she's been making since the early nineteen-eighties. The unheated upstairs room was a little chilly on this early spring day, but it had windows on three sides and was full of light. Packing and shipping for the three-museum retrospective would not start for another month or so, and the room, I realized, contained fifty years of her work, on shelves and walls and long tables or hanging from the ceiling: terra-cotta figures of people, birds, and animals, from the late nineteen-fifties; three wall reliefs from the early sixties, one of which, she told me, used to serve as her money box--she tossed loose change into its single projecting hole; a large transparent plastic fish, from the early seventies, quite realistic, suspended from the ceiling in a corner of the room; and two dozen or more...

Lee Bontecou is a model and hero for me, not only because of her wonderful work, but because she pursued her own goals at her own pace, unpressured by the commercialism of the art world and the desire to sell. She made work because she believed in it, because she was curious about materials, the natural world and making her ideas a reality and because that's just who she was and what she did.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for turning me on to this woman's work and life. I am blown away and amazed that I have never heard about her until your introduction. I have to find out more and see more! is there a part 3?...

Nancy Natale said...

Hi Lynette,
She is great. You have to see her work in person (not that I've seen that much myself) but the big pieces are really something.

No part 3. I posted 32 images in part 2 and really should have divided it up, but wanted to get them all in. That's about all I can manage. All I can say is: buy the book.

Joanne Mattera said...

These are two terrific posts. You provided great pics and a lot of historical coverage. Beyond that, I like that you connected to her work personally.

And as a footnote, the piece on Hedda Sterne was very good, too.

There's a lot of art history that gets lost in the folds of time, politics and commercialism. You are very good at looking into the folds. Thanks for that.

Nancy Natale said...

Thank you so much, Joanne. That means a lot coming from you. I especially like to relate the history of women artists since it has been disregarded or ignored. I like telling the story of artists' lives in a way that makes clear they had the same struggle we all go through but persisted in their work.

Leslie Avon Miller said...

Wow Nancy - Thank you so much! I've got to buy this book!

ArtPropelled said...

Fantastic! Hope I can find the book here.

Donna Dodson said...

Thank you for this post. There's a nice piece of hers in Albany in the Empire State Collection. We saw the vacuumed formed pieces at Knoedler a few years ago- not sure why they were shown retrospectively as a solo show but it was amazing to see them.

kim matthews said...

Beautifully said. I still haven't bought the book but have every intention of doing so. Next on the scavenger hunt, an affordable volume on Agnes Martin. Thanks for your fine work!

Jill said...

Nancy, I'm a little late on the uptake but thoroughly enjoyed these two posts on Lee. I had never heard of her, but your great pics and write-up made me order THE BOOK. Thanks so much for taking the time to put together this information!

ELFI said...

une découverte grace à artpropelled..
c'est magnifique!

Unknown said...

Nice work! I LOVE Lee Bontecou! I put a link to your blog on my page- ( Thanks for sharing!

rfaulhaber said...

thanks for your great blog on Lee Bontecou. I was familiar with her early work, but was not aware of her history and especially the later work, which I really love.

Chris Coffman said...

Thank you for the images and your fascinating text.

Have you seen this intense article by the poet Christian Wiman: ?

He describes how Lee Bontecou's work has been deeply meaningful to him . . .