Biography of Lee Bontecou
Groundbreaking American artist Lee Bontecou has produced a strikingly original body of work and is cited by artists such as Donald Judd and Kiki Smith as having had a major influence on their work.
Lee Bontecou’s beautifully constructed black holes or voids were unlike anything else seen before in Contemporary Art, and seemed to belong to science fiction worlds and alien landscapes. Dark in tone, with brownish fleshy-coloring, the patchwork constructions of wire, muslin, canvas and leather are both organic and intensely elaborate and technological in appearance. Unlike many artists of her era, she was adept at using found materials in her works, even making use of discarded washing machine components.
One of the most recognized female artists of the 1960s, Lee Bontecou was born in Providence in 1931 and grew up near New York City. Growing up her father engineered World War II gliders and her mother worked in a munitions factory. Fascinated by the impact of technology on nature, her young imagination was shaped by the science fiction novels she read as child. She studied at the Art Students League in New York, graduating in 1955. After a period of travelling and studying in Italy, Lee Bontecou discovered the blowtorch. Its spray of black soot when the oxygen was turned off was a landmark discovery in her work, enabling her to explore what she referred to as “the black”.
Reaching maturity at the same time as the space race between America and Russia was heating up, her fusion of the industrial with the organic, emphasized the contradictory nature of the space race. Lee Bontecou always believed that man’s “mind-boggling engineering feats” go hand-in-hand with “destructive abominations” and horrific acts such as the Nazis concentration camps of World War II. To her they “are all one. It is in the spirit of this feeling that the primary influences on my work have occurred.”
By the 1960s Bontecou was the only female artist represented by the highly esteemed Castelli Gallery in New York. Despite attempts made by feminists to explain her black voids as being like orifices, mouths and vaginas, Bontecou rejected that interpretation, stating that they were more concerned with the sublime. Never stopping to experiment, by the late 60s she was using plastic in her sculpture, and making representations of flora and fauna.
Later in life she preferred to work outside the gallery system and work to her own schedule. Striving continually to capture “as much of life as possible—no barriers—no boundaries—all freedom in every sense.” In 2003 Lee Bontecou had a large retrospective at the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, featuring upwards of 150 sculptures and drawings. In 2010 she had a solo exhibition at MoMA, New York entitled “Lee Bontecou: All Freedom in Every Sense.” Her work is featured in numerous international collections, including the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, The National Gallery of Art in London, as well as the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam among many others.