Lee Bontecou

(Providence, Rhode Island, 1931 - 2022, Cedar Key, Florida)

North America, American

Lee Bontecou studied sculpture under William Zorach at the Art Students League of New York in the mid 1950s. During a summer spent at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, Bontecou learned metal welding. She was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to study in Rome from 1957 to 1958. Back in the United States, Bontecou began salvaging canvas conveyer belts from the laundry business below her studio. She stitched these and other found materials together with wire and stretched them over welded metal frames that contained both voids and protrusions, positive and negative space. Bontecou frequently painted the canvas sections white, gray or pitch-black, combining elements of painting and sculpture in works she termed “reliefs.” Although visually bearing little resemblance to abstract impressionist painters like Jackson Pollock, Bontecou cited the importance they placed on the artistic process as a strong influence. The early success of Bontecou’s reliefs, which were exhibited by famed New York City art dealer Leo Castelli in the 60s and included in Museum of Modern Art exhibitions The Art of Assemblage (1961) and Americans 1963, attests to their resonance with contemporary social issues, especially the build-up to the Cold War and space exploration. Bontecou’s subsequent body of work, vacuum-formed plastic fish and flowers, met with near-universal disappointment when it was shown in 1971. Subsequently Bontecou largely retired from the art world, although she taught part-time at Brooklyn College until 1991. In the early 1990s, Bontecou and her husband moved to rural Pennsylvania where she continued making art in isolation. A health scare in the mid 90s convinced her to participate in a retrospective of her work organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2003. Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective, which also traveled to the Museum of Modern Art, Queens, included many works made since the 70s that had never been publicly shown before. These late sculptures differ from Bontecou’s reliefs in that they are generally smaller in scale, more delicate and more influenced by organic forms, especially the fish and the eye, which has replaced the void as a reoccurring, unifying motif.

Orbisonia, Pennsylvania

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