American artist Lee Bontecou made art in New York City in the late 1950s through the 1960s. She worked in a variety of media: sculpture, printmaking, and drawing but is best known for her wall reliefs which bridged the divide between painting and sculpture. Her sculptures and drawings often contained a large circular opening, a black void in the center, which is suggestive of body parts or a mechanical aperture.
Bontecou studied at the Art Students League in New York from 1952-1955. She attended the Skowhegan School of Art in Maine in 1954, and she studied art in Rome from 1957-1958 on a Fulbright Scholarship. When she returned to New York City in 1958, she experimented with the color black in her drawings and made big constructions from found objects. She was unique in making her own art and was not a part of any particular art movement. Nor was she involved with feminist art.
Her sculptural wall reliefs combine organic shapes and a sense of the mechanical in terms of the industrial materials she uses. The three-dimensional objects are bulky constructions affixed to and extending out from walls and are cobbled together with various machine parts. She takes taut stretched canvas or fabric and stitches it to wire frameworks. They often feature a central gaping black hole, opening onto a black velvet backdrop. Variations of grey and rust colors make these work resemble aircraft or some galactic entity in space. In one piece she used leftover canvas conveyor belts from a New York City laundry and stitched the canvas with copper wire onto a steel armature. Later works are suspended in space.
She has explored the color black in a variety of media. The color’s ambiguity is particularly evident on paper, as in her “Fifth Stone” 1964. In this work concentric ovals of back and orange-yellow stains create a feeling of motion. The foreground and background seem to slowly change places as the work’s central black oval becomes an emptiness that is also its own object.
In the late 1960s Bontecou began to make works out of salsa wood and silk, resembling chrysalis forms. She experimented with synthetic materials such as fiberglas, plastic, and epoxy, making sculptures of flowers and fish in disturbing interpretations. Her flowers and plants were muted and sinister, while the fish were menacing with sharp teeth – with one fish devouring smaller fish. While theses pieces were not always well received, she kept on working and found her way in sculptures that combined metal and clay, formed and shaped into suspended works resembling airborne objects.
She retreated from New York City and the public eye to have a family life in rural Pennsylvania with her husband and baby daughter. She made art in her barn and led a quiet life. However a few years later in 1971 she accepted a faculty position at Brooklyn College where she taught design, drawing, and sculpture two days a week for 20 years. In 2003, she had a major retrospective at the Hammer Museum of 70 sculptures and 80 drawings, that travelled to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In 2007, she became a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2019, more than a hundred of her paperworks were exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago”s “Into the Void: Prints of Lee Bontecou” in the first showing of her prints in more than 40 years.
Her work is in the permanent collections of major museums which include the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and in Dallas, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and many others.