[My goal is] to glimpse some of the fear, hope, ugliness, beauty and mystery that exists in all of us and which hangs over all the young people today.
- Lee Bontecou, 1963
Defying classification and reclusive in nature, Lee Bontecou's fierce individualism informed her enigmatic and highly acclaimed body of work. Bontecou was the only woman in Leo Castelli's stable of artists, peers whom included Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Donald Judd and James Rosenquist. A member of the Arts Student League and active at the Skowhegan School of Painiting and Sculpture in Maine, Bontecou burst onto the New York art scene with her first solo show at Castelli in 1960. In the following few years she would have two exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art; the 1961 "The Art of Assemblage" and again in 1963 in the exhibition "Americans," for which she made the above statement. The decade of the 60s would remain her best known period: a period from 1959 - 1967 in which she created her wall-relief sculptures of found material and welded steel wire. These three-dimensional constructs use a pioneering technique of stretching fragments of recycled fabrics and canvas and fastening them to a metal frame of undulating, organic forms of great depth and total originality.
The importance of these works cannot be overstated. Bontecou was profoundly influential for other female artists, including Eva Hesse and Kiki Smith. Critics and artist alike immediately grasped the impact and magnitude of her developments, marrying the Cubist brushstroke to sculptural form. Dore Ashton said of the artist in a 1963 essay: "In this image-making prowess there is an originality that would be difficult to define in the logic of language, an originality in the quite literal sense: one is absorbed by the reigning image and knows instinctively that it had its origin deep in the artist's psyche... The reigning image is the black tunneled hole central to anything Bontecou undertakes... the intensity of her expression and the currents of authenticity that one feels so strongly lead one to sense for a moment the depth and inexpressible sources of her imagery." (Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective, 2004, p. 174). The technical handling of her chosen materials stemmed from Bontecou's early exposure to the process of industrial manufacturing. Both her parents were skilled technicians - her mother working in a World War II submarine factory wiring transmitters and her father having invented an all-aluminum canoe with her uncle. Her sculptural armatures are complex feats of engineering.
The gaping black holes carved into the geometric forms have been interpreted in a variety of ways, most of which the artist rejects. For her, these dark voids add an element of mystery and evoke a sensation of the unknown in her inexplicably beautiful and hypnotizing works.
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