Lee Bontecou — an artist who sculpted paintings, welded drawings, and responded to interview questions with the affect of a Beat poet — died in her home in Florida at the age of 91 on Tuesday, November 8.
Bontecou achieved acclaim for her work in the early 1960s, joining an exclusively male cohort of Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art painters including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol who were also being exhibited at Leo Castelli Gallery. Her career took off not long after she presented her work in a solo show at the gallery, with her art included in numerous shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and a commission at Lincoln Center in the subsequent years.
She produced her best-known works during this time, assemblages of found industrial materials like canvas conveyor belts, welded steel, copper wire, saw blades, and rope. Many of them centered a cavernous opening set against black velvet, a sinister motif that some described as vaginal but which she herself saw as a reference to the universe beyond planet Earth. The wall-mounted constructions defied gendered expectations of what a woman artist of the time should make.
“Art is art and it doesn’t mean whether it’s woman or man. It doesn’t matter,” Bontecou said in an interview in the Chicago Reader in 2004.
At a time in history when notions of space and time were being exploded by forays into outer space and the introduction of the atomic bomb, Bontecou’s artistic investigations reflected ennui with earthly restriction. “I just got tired of sculpture as a big thing in the middle of a room,” the artist said, adding that she “wanted it to go into space.”
The same prominence that made her a star in downtown New York’s mid-century art scene frustrated Bontecou, who soon began to feel the constriction of her fame. When she produced different work later that decade — a series of plastic fish and flowers with heads like gas masks and stems like life-support tubes — she was urged to continue to pump out works like her earlier ones at a steady pace, a suggestion she chafed against. In the 1970s, she relocated her practice to a barn in rural Pennsylvania, where she spent decades fashioning wire-and-ceramic sculptures that hung in space. She moved with her husband and daughter to Long Island and began teaching at Brooklyn College at the City University of New York, which she continued to do for almost twenty years, a job she said she took “as a way of having no galleries.”
Bontecou became notoriously hard to track down. Few knew her address and she rarely responded to curators or press — until she agreed to work with Elizabeth Smith on a retrospective of her work that opened in 2003–2004 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Hammer Museum, and MoMA, uniting over 100 of her sculptures and drawings.
That show provided a sampling of Bontecou’s uncategorizable, heterogeneous, life-spanning work. “My most persistently recurring thought is to work in a scope as far-reaching as possible, to express a feeling of freedom in all its necessary ramifications — its awe, beauty, magnitude, horror, and baseness,” Bontecou said in 1993. “This feeling embraces ancient, present, and future worlds: from caves to jet engines, landscapes to outer space, from visible nature to the inner eye.”