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Lee Bontecou (b.1931)

1 of 7

Untitled, 1957
soot on paper
27 5/8" x 39 3/8", signed and dated

Untitled, c.1957-58
6 1/2" x 13" x 6", signed

Untitled (Cocoon), 1967
silk, balsa wood, wire and metal armature
26 1/2" x 11" x 11"

Untitled, 1967
colored pencil and gouache on paper
15 3/8" x 20 5/8", signed and dated

Untitled (Fish), 1969
graphite on paper
20" x 26", signed and dated

Untitled, 1972
graphite and gesso on paper
25 x 20 1/2 inches, signed and dated

Untitled, 1974-75
graphite on gessoed paper
43 1/8" x 76 3/4", signed and dated


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“My most persistently recurring thought is to work in a scope as far-reaching as possible; to express a feeling of freedom in all its necessary ramifications – its awe, beauty, magnitude, horror and baseness.  This feeling embraces ancient, present and future worlds: from caves to jet engines, landscapes to outer space, from visible nature to the inner eye, all encompassed in cohesive works of my inner world.  This total freedom is essential.”[1]

Born in 1931, Lee Bontecou grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, where, during World War II, her mother worked in a factory wiring submarine parts. This memory, together with reports she heard about the war and the Holocaust, had a profound effect on Bontecou’s childhood consciousness. As an adult, she continues to be disturbed by world events, and her work often demonstrates a sharp awareness of the horrors of war and social injustice. As a child, Bontecou also developed her life-long love of nature, particularly marine biology, due to the many summers she pent in Nova Scotia, in her mother’s native Canada.

From 1953 to 1958, Bontecou attended the Art Students League in New York, studying with William Zorach and George Grosz, among others. In 1954, she learned to weld, during a summer course in Skowhegan, Maine. Two years later, Bontecou received a Fulbright scholarship and used the funding to study in Italy from 1956 to 1957. While there, she devised a method of drawing using an acetylene torch. Turning down the torch’s oxygen, Bontecou created what she called “worldscapes,” soot drawings in which “velvety black forms graduate slowly and atmospherically toward a horizon,” foreshadowing, as Mona Hadler points out, “Bontecou’s arresting amalgamations of two-and three-dimensional elements.”[2] Bontecou returned to New York in 1958 and began to translate the basic ideas behind these drawings into three dimensions, creating the large, raw, monochromatic, wall-mounted assemblages that have become synonymous with her name.  Her first step in creating these sculptures would be to weld a frame, which could be seen as an analogy to the boundaries of a sheet of paper. “Building outward from the rectangle, she constructed an asymmetrical scaffolding that allowed for a rich spatial play. She then fastened sooted canvas to the frame with thin wire, preferring decomposable iron wire in her earliest pieces to the more stable copper she chose for her later work. The analogy to the body, composed of skin, bones, various other materials, and orifices is striking.”[3] Bontecou rose to prominence with these abstract wall sculptures, which often featured a central gaping black hole opening on to a black velvet backdrop.

In 1960, Leo Castelli gave Bontecou her first solo exhibition, and in 1961, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York purchased Untitled (1961), a large-scale relief fabricated from canvas, rope, and wire, in which the central hole grimaces with “teeth” gleaned from the blade of a band saw. That same year, her work was included in The Art of Assemblage at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York. By 1963, the MoMA had also acquired one of her works, and “architect Philip Johnson commissioned a large sculpture for the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, which was set to open the following year.”[4] Bonetcou participated in the São Paulo Bienal; and in 1964, she and Louise Bourgeois were the only two women chosen to represent North America in Documenta III, Kassel, Germany.

In the 1970s, Bontecou began teaching at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, where she stayed for nearly twenty years. She also created a series of works out of vacuum-formed plastic resembling plants and marine life—an ironic commentary on the abuse nature continued to suffer at the hands of humanity. In 1972, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago organized a survey exhibition of her work. Soon after, frustration with the demands of the art market led Bontecou to gradually detach herself from the New York art world. However but the often-repeated idea that she became a recluse is misconception. Suspicious of the restraints imposed by scholarly and critical attempts to characterize her work, Bontecou had always remained independent of any single art movement. She continued to work in private, on a series of ceiling-mounted sculptures “constructed with a handmade welded frame and embellished with numerous small porcelain elements all made by hand. These works have an expansive and calming effect. They are both galactic and terrestrial.”[5] These were revealed for the first time in 2003, when a major traveling retrospective of her work was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. A year later, she received the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture, and in 2007, Lee Bontecou became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Despite a recent heath scare and harassment from white supremacists, Bontecou continues to live and work in rural Pennsylvania.

[1] Elizabeth A.T. Smith, “Abstract Sinister: Traveling Exhibit of Sculptor Lee Bontecou’s Work,” Art in America, September 1993

[2] Mona Hadler, “Lee Bontecou’s ‘Warnings,’” Art Journal, v. 53, n. 4 (Winter, 1994), 56

[3] Hadler, 57.

[4] Kristen Swenson, “‘Like War Equipment. With Teeth’: Lee Bontecou's Steel-and-Canvas Reliefs,”

 American Art, v.17, n.3 (Autumn, 2003), 75.

[5] Mona Hadler, “Lee Bontecou,” Joan Marter, ed., Grove Encyclopedia of American Art, Volume I (Oxford University Press, 2011), 310.



Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art, Ithaca, NY
Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, CA
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC
Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu, HI
Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
Menil Collection, Houston, TX
Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
New School of Social Research, New York, NY
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Philadelphia, PA
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art, New York, NY
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY