You know you’ve found something special, when the same artist takes you by surprise on different occasions. I remember the first time I saw Lee Bontecou’s work at MoMA. I stood in the middle of the gallery, looking up, gobsmacked. I said to one of my art friends, Look at that! Who is it?
Without a moment’s hesitation S. said, That’s Lee Bontecou. Isn’t she great?
I was only slightly, and fleetingly, embarrassed that I wasn’t familiar with this artist, and her work. Lee Bontecou was born in 1931 in Rhode Island, U.S.A. She was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in 1957; in 1966 she won the first prize from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. There have been major solo retrospectives of her work in the last twenty years, including at MoMA / MCA Chicago / Hammer Museum in 2003/4. In 2014 the Menil Collection in Houston had a exhibition of her drawings.
Last October (2019), at the newly renovated MoMa, I came around a gallery corner and encountered this:
Bear in mind this sculpture is about 5 feet wide by 5 feet high and protrudes from the wall. It is an arresting presence that stopped me, and demanded my attention. The darkness of the central void, the somber palette, and the varying depths and shapes encompassed in the piece make it extremely powerful.
I had to check the label, as neither my friends (S. and J.) nor I recognized the work. I was pleased to read Lee Bontecou. This sculpture cemented my admiration for Ms Bontecou’s work. The label explained that it is constructed of old conveyer belts that the artist salvaged from a laundry below her East Village apartment. The curators suggest that the piece expresses anxiety, as it was created when the U.S.A. entered the Vietnam War, the Berlin Wall construction began, and the American tensions with Cuba were at fever pitch.
Here is a short video from MoMA highlighting Bontecou’s piece within the show Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction. (You can skip ahead to the 4 minute mark to hear specifically about this sculpture.)
The details are exquisite, don’t you think? The copper stitching appears fine and delicate, yet it holds together the muscular, voluminous forms.
Bontecou said, My concern is to build things that express our relation to this country…..to other worlds to glimpse some of the fear, hope, ugliness, beauty, and mystery that exists in us all and hangs over all the young people today.
It’s not surprising that the work is strong – it expresses much of the human condition. Despite being 60 years old, it is still relevant today.