Lee Bontecou, acclaimed creator of wall-mounted art, dies at 91

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Lee Bontecou, acclaimed creator of wall-mounted art, dies at 91
An untitled sculpture by Lee Bontecou inside The Hauser Wirth & Schimmel Museum in Los Angeles, on March 14, 2016. Lee Bontecou, whose enormous, enigmatic wall-mounted sculptures garnered the kind of public acclaim and institutional backing in the 1960s typically reserved for male art stars at the time, died on Tuesday, Nov 8, 2022. (Michal Czerwonka/The New York Times) .

by Jennifer Szalai

NEW YORK, NY.- Lee Bontecou, whose enormous, enigmatic wall-mounted sculptures garnered the kind of public acclaim and institutional backing in the 1960s typically reserved for male art stars at the time, died Tuesday at her home in Florida. She was 91.

Her representative, Bill Maynes, confirmed the death but declined to specify where in Florida she lived.

Bontecou was one of the first — and, for a time, one of the only — women shown at the influential Leo Castelli Gallery, whose roster of artists included Cy Twombly, Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg. In the mid-1960s, artist and critic Donald Judd praised her pioneering use of “a three-dimensional form that was neither painting nor sculpture” and deemed her “one of the best artists working anywhere.”

She would leave the New York art world less than a decade later. But for a time, she seemed energized by the city.

Inspired by what she later called the “most wonderful period of abstract expressionism,” Bontecou became known in the 1960s for her enormous wall-mounted constructions, assembled from industrial materials — canvas conveyor belts, empty mailbags, sections of dryers — and scraps of soiled canvas stretched over welded steel frames. The reliefs, which often included cavities, lined with dark velveteen, attracted fascination and speculation.

Some critics saw vaginal imagery and aggressive sexuality in her combination of industrial materials and dilated apertures, an interpretation that portrayed her art as avant-garde and in sync with the advent of second-wave feminism. But Bontecou called that view inaccurate and reductive, and she bristled at any suggestion that her work had feminist motivations.

She maintained, in fact, that the cavities had more to do with outer space; in the late 1950s, she said, she “felt great excitement when little Sputnik flew,” referring to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first artificial satellite in space.

“Art is art,” she told The Chicago Reader in 2004, “and it doesn’t mean whether it’s woman or man. It doesn’t matter.”

She was blunt when recalling the discrepancy between what she wanted to do and what she said was expected of her. “When I started,” she said, “they wanted my things completely wimp feminine, and the gallery wanted to push that and I just wanted to throw up.”

When Ivan Karp, the associate director of the Castelli gallery, first visited Bontecou, in about 1960, she was living and working in an unheated loft on Avenue C in the East Village. She had drilled holes in the floor to capture the excess heat from the laundry below.

A “little girl-like creature came to the door,” Karp said in a 1969 interview for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. He asked whether she was Lee Bontecou’s daughter.

“She looked to me like a 14-year-old girl,” he added, “a very fragile creature, 94 pounds she weighed then, with a very delicate face and straight blond hair. I remember going in there and seeing these tentlike structures with their fierce apertures, you know, rather terrifying. And in contrast to them, this little girl was a rather unsettling experience.”

While she worked, she listened to a shortwave radio, growing “angry,” as she put it in an interview with writer Eleanor Munro, at the news she heard. New York’s governor, Nelson A. Rockefeller, “was trying to push bomb shelters on us,” she said. “Africa was in trouble, and we were so negative.” She added, “I remembered the killings, the Holocaust.” She began incorporating saw blades and actual war materiel, like helmets and gas masks, into her reliefs.

While she was horrified by man-made atrocity, she remained impressed by the industrial power of the man-made world. She found expression for it when architect Philip Johnson commissioned her to create a 21-foot-long wall relief for Lincoln Center.

Completed in 1964 and installed at the foot of a staircase in the New York State Theater, the work incorporated her signature materials of canvas and welded steel as well as part of a World War II bomber, giving it a winglike shape. Life magazine wrote that Bontecou had brought the “jet age to Lincoln Center” and likened the piece to “a complex flying machine that might actually be able to get up off the ground and soar.”


For “Originals,” a 1979 book about American women artists, Bontecou told Munro about the sublime experience of sitting over the wing of an airplane, marveling at the propeller and the jet engine and “how it was all riveted together.”

“You felt that incredible force,” she said. “It would just about make my imagination go out of bounds.”


Bontecou was born Jan. 15, 1931, in Providence, Rhode Island. Her father, Russell, was a salesman who had a hand in the development of the aluminum canoe; her mother, Margaret (Jones) Bontecou, wired submarine parts in a factory during World War II.

Along with her parents and her older brother, Lee would stay during the summers at the family cottage in Nova Scotia, which is where her creative life began. She started by whittling ox carts and making farm animals out of pine cones, before discovering the possibilities of other materials. At the age of 8 or 9, she later told Munro, “I remember distinctly thinking, I can do anything in the world if I only have the tools to do it with.”

After spending her childhood in Westchester County New York, Bontecou attended first Bradford Junior College in Massachusetts and then the Art Students League in New York, where she studied painting with Robert Brackman and sculpture with William Zorach. During a summer residency at the Skowhegan School of Sculpture and Painting in Maine, she learned how to weld, a skill she continued to develop while studying in Rome on a Fulbright scholarship.

While in Rome, she created abstract birds out of terra cotta. But her welding torch introduced other possibilities: Turning off the oxygen produced a spray of soot, a deep black that “opened everything up,” she later said. She called her soot drawings “worldscapes.”

Bontecou married painter William Giles in the spring of 1965, and their daughter, Valerie, was born soon after. In the 1970s, they moved to a farm they bought in rural Pennsylvania; she had grown increasingly impatient with their Manhattan neighborhood, SoHo, which she said had turned into a “zoo.”

Her husband, with whom she moved to Florida a few years ago, and her daughter, Valerie Giles, are her only immediate survivors.


In 1971, Bontecou exhibited a body of work at the Leo Castelli Gallery that looked like a departure from the canvas-and-steel reliefs that had brought her renown. The show featured plastic sculptures of fish and flowers. Taking the Styrofoam found in bulkheads of airplanes and canoes, she carved out her forms and used a vacuum press to create the new translucent objects, many of which looked less delicate than sinister: fish speckled with rivets, flowers with long tubes spilling forth like mutant stamens or intravenous lines.

Critics familiar with her earlier work, and accustomed to the reigning minimalism of the day, gave the new pieces a mixed reception. Despite finding them “engaging and admirably crafted,” James R. Mellow of The New York Times concluded that the sculptures were “dissatisfying” for their “illustrational stodginess.”

It would be Bontecou’s last solo show in New York for nearly three decades. At the height of her fame, she seemed to disappear from the art world. She continued to make new work after moving to Pennsylvania, but she had little interest in showing. Her daughter was still young, she needed a rest, and she “wanted to explore and expand,” she later explained to Calvin Tomkins, who wrote a profile of her for The New Yorker. “I just didn’t want to have to make things, and finish things, and show them every two years.”

She used the cavity from one of her ’60s-era wall reliefs to store her spare change. When the curator of the 1995 Whitney Biennial asked her to participate, she ignored his letters for months until eventually turning him down with a definitive no.

Bontecou commuted into the city to teach art at Brooklyn College for the next 20 years. She was a gentle and well-liked teacher, according to painter Lois Dodd, who was on the faculty at the same time. During the year-end critiques for art students, Dodd recalled, “Lee wasn’t one to cut them off at the knees.”

A 2003 retrospective of Bontecou’s work, organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York the next year, included sculptures and drawings from the 1980s and ’90s that seemed to fuse her seemingly divergent inspirations — outer space, industrial mechanics, marine life and the natural world — into a coherent oeuvre, like a missing link: iridescent spheres resembling eyeballs or marbles or planets rendered in colored pencil; galactic constellations constructed from porcelain, silk and wire that could also pass as alien birds or insects.

She explained that her main reason for agreeing to the retrospective after all those decades was that she had developed aplastic anemia a few years before, and that it had nearly killed her. “I suddenly feared that I was going to dump all this stuff on my children,” she told the Times in 2003. “What was I going to do with it?”

Bontecou credited her husband’s determination to find alternative treatments with saving her life. She also objected to the notion that her retreat from the New York art scene constituted a disappearance from the art world — as if the art scene and the art world were one and the same. “I’ve never left the art world,” she told Ann Philbin, the director of the Hammer Museum. “I’m in the real art world.”

Bontecou was less confounded than the critics by the trajectory of her work over the decades, seeing all her art as connected to and even seamless with her life.

“I kept thinking how nice it was to be able to change, not to be stuck in a mold,” she told Munro in the late 1970s. “But the strange thing is that even after you have changed, as you believe you have, and then look back, you see there is one thread through it all.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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