This post has been updated from the original post on October 17, 2017.
We’re revisiting our love of Lee Bontecou as our most recent Marine update is inspired by the words and life of Zora Neale Hurston, and the artistry of Vija Celmins (more coming soon), and Bontecou. Lee Bontecou has always been difficult to categorize, as her work reflects elements of Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism, and Feminist art. She was a true pioneer in the use of unconventional materials in her sculptures, integrating metal tubing, scrap hardware, and recycled linen during the 1950s and 1960s. She took painstaking care with her work—always leaving visible traces of her making process, like stitches, scorch marks, and twisted wire.
One of her most significant discoveries was how a welding torch could be manipulated to create an easily controlled spray of black soot, which became one of her signature techniques. The torch used both oxygen and the chemical compound acetylene and when tinkering with the torch, Bontecou discovered that turning off the oxygen caused the acetylene to spray pure soot across her workroom floor. “I just started drawing with it, and I had to keep the torch moving. I burned up a lot of paper!” she said. “Then I got thicker paper that resisted the flame more, and it was an incredible black, it was just beautiful. I made a lot of drawings with it.”
Left: “Untitled”, 1959 by Lee Bontecou via the Museum of Modern Art. Medium: welded steel, canvas, black fabric and wire; Right: “Studio of Lee Bontecou”, 1964. Photographed by Ugo Mulas Heirs
Her use of soot as a material led her to create her signature black hole motifs. One of the sculptures used as inspiration for our design (Untitled, 1959) is a relief made from scrap metal scavenged from outside of factories and a broken conveyor belt from the laundromat located below her New York apartment. Like many of her sculptures, it combines industrial and natural elements and attempts to capture, as she described, “as much of life as possible – no barriers – no boundaries – all freedom in every sense.”
“Untitled”, 1980 – 1998 by Lee Bontecou via the Museum of Modern Art. Medium: Welded steel, porcelain, wire mesh, canvas, grommets, and wire
Many of her sculptures and wall reliefs were large and took years to create and were suspended from the ceiling or, if wall mounted, were ambitious in the amount of space they inhabited. Bontecou said, “I just got tired of sculpture as a big thing in the middle of the room. I wanted it to go into space.” For years, she left much of her work untitled, as she wanted the viewer to interpret the art without imposed meaning.
View the video below from the MoMA to see some of Lee’s seminal works.
Top image: “Untitled”, 1958 by Lee Bontecou viathe Museum of Modern Art. Medium: soot on paperboard .
I visited an exhibition of Bontecou’s work in Chicago some years ago. Truly, seminal experience that I draw from still. What a treasure to come across this article today via your email in my inbox. thank you.
Thank you for your kind words, Linda.
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Thank you for introducing me to this amazing, inventive artist!
So glad that you enjoyed the post, Lexy. You can read about more amazing women by searching the hashtag #womenwhoinspire on the Journal.