“Lee Bontecou in her Wooster Street studio”, 1963 by Ugo Mulas.
Lee Bontecou was known to use her art to explore voids she found in society and within herself. She blended sculpture with paintings and drawings, often using unconventional materials and processes she developed for her work. She was known as being meticulous with each step in the creation process. While she was well known as a “pioneer figure in the New York art world”, she felt that she was also part of an art world that consumed people and ideas and an industry of sorts that presented endless deadlines and demands. These demands were not conducive to Bontecou’s way of thinking and making. She felt that the commercial art world, as it was evolving, was creating an environment that allowed less mental space to experiment. In response, she broke from the New York art scene in the 1970s and moved with her husband, artist Bill Giles and family to a farm in rural Pennsylvania.
“Untitled”, 1966 by Lee Bontecou from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
Bontecou’s supposed disappearance was surrounded by rumors, but also made her puzzling and legendary. Most assumed that she had stopped working, but instead, she worked at a steady pace for decades in solitude, while also raising a young daughter and caring for her aging father. The Pennsylvania compound allowed her to work without distraction, and she found inspiration and flourished by exploring nature. As Giles told the New York Times, ”Lee would go into the barn in rubber boots in six inches of water, and go to work.”
”All I ever wanted was the time and space to work.”
While Lee remained absent, her work came back into the spotlight in 2003 after a retrospective at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. And afterward was shown at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Hauser & Wirth gallery in Zürich, Princeton University Art Museum in New Jersey, and Menil Collection in Houston.
This year, as the world has navigated sheltering in place, the idea of creating in solitude has become a reality. A great number of artists have discovered or rediscovered that time alone is beneficial, if not essential, to the creative processes. Lee Bontecou famously affirmed, ”All I ever wanted was the time and space to work.”
She was a powerhouse of ideas and like most women artists; few know of her work. In art school, I would draw her pieces in order to understand her work on a deeper level. This process allowed me to experience her wisdom of creating a whole out of many disparate parts.
Thank you for sharing, Mayona!