Lee Bontecou (1931–2022)

Lee Bontecou, who gained widespread notice for her industrial assemblages, plush cavity–pocked canvases, and vacuum-formed plastic sculptures of organic shapes, died November 8 at her home in Florida at the age of ninety-one. Bontecou rose to prominence in the 1960s as one of the few women artists feted on the burgeoning New York scene before shocking the art world by decamping to Pennsylvania for thirty years. She quietly continued to make work there, commuting to teach art at Brooklyn College for two decades before finally agreeing to a 2003 retrospective at Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum that restored her oeuvre to its prominent place in the art-historical canon, though for the internally driven Bontecou, it had never ceased to occupy this realm. “I’ve never left the art world,” she told Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin that year. “I’m in the real art world.”

Lee Bontecou was born January 5, 1931, in Providence, Rhode Island. Fascinated with sculpture from a young age, she was deeply influenced by World War II, which would later inform her industrial structures, and by summers spent with her family in Nova Scotia, to which her later organic forms could be traced. After attending Bradford Junior College in Haverhill, Massachusetts, Bontecou in 1952 moved to New York, where she studied at the Art Students League until 1955, spending the summer of 1954 learning to weld at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. In 1958, after spending a year in Rome on a Fulbright Scholarship, she returned to New York, where she began making the monstrous, wall-hung works fusing metal and canvas for which she quickly became renowned. In 1960, she became the lone woman on gallerist Leo Castelli’s roster, showing her work alongside that of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella.

Her work of this decade frequently took as its theme the brutality of war and the attendant feelings surrounding it, embodied, for example, in her 1964 commission for the lobby of New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, a colossal wall relief incorporating part of a WWII bomber. Writing on Bontecou’s work at the San Francisco Museum of Art’s group show “Americans 1963,” staged the titular year, Artforum’s James Monte noted that Bontecou “makes no emotional cover for her obsessional steel, wire and canvas wall construc­tions, hanging dumb, like secret, un­fulfilled wishes, having burned before fruition.” 

Shortly before her 1971 move to Pennsylvania and her assumption of a teaching role at Brooklyn College, Bontecou turned from war to nature, creating plastic sculptures that conjured fish, plants, and flowers; these would later become the subjects of drawings, which in the last decade of her life brought her a raft of accolades. “One senses the artist is also narrating her own kinetic and interior process while she’s in the act of psychically glimpsing her forms,” wrote Suzanne Hudson in a 2021 Artforum review of Bontecou’s works on paper at Houston’s Menil Collection. “Her approach is an embrace of action, or of energy manifestly coinciding with the articulation of line as graphite crosses the sheet and takes shape and then takes another, or holds out the possibility that it could.”

Among the honors Bontecou received are the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award (1959) and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ gold medal for sculpture (2019). She was elected into the National Academy of Design in 2004.  Though she graciously accepted these accolades, Bontecou often rejected critical interpretations of her work, opposing prevalent gendered readings and maintaining that she was little influenced by other contemporary artists. She also preferred that the focus be on her work, rather than on her. “Being an artist is not a career,” she said. “It’s just something that grabs you.”

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