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Lee Bontecou made her decision to walk away from Leo Castelli’s New York gallery in 1972. Married, teaching and committed to parenting a young daughter, Bontecou contended, "I needed a rest. I wanted to explore and expand. I just didn't want to have to make things, and finish things, and show them every two years."
When she joined Castelli in 1960, Bontecou was the only woman in an enterprise that would launch the stellar careers of men like Johns, Judd, Rauschenberg, Stella and Warhol. As Bontecou backed out of Castelli’s stable, Louise Lawler produced her sound piece, Bird Calls, parroting names like Jasper, Donald, Robert, Frank and Andy in an inspired mock of conditions of privilege and presence given to guys.
Bontecou has always worked independently of affiliation with feminist (or any other) art movements. Yet, walking through her retrospective without some awareness of how career building and conditions for (and created by) women have impacted interpretations of her work, seems simplistic.
The breakthrough work Bontecou began fabricating in 1959, stretching canvas, laundry conveyor belts and other scavenged fabrics over welded steel frameworks, retains its power. Along with remarkable drawings from this and other eras, the exhibition contains examples of her lighter, outward projecting works as well as the desperately dark constructions, mined with saw blades, army helmets and other war surplus materials. These wall-mounted sculptures incorporate the illusion of depth Bontecou invested in her drawings. Gaping voids are enhanced with sooty blacks coaxed from the extinguished end of her acetylene torch.
As Bontecou worked in her studio, her short wave radio broadcasted threats of attack by (cold war) terrorists or news of horrific events in Africa. Fear and anger that she had felt as a child, about the Holocaust, began to surface. “I’d get so depressed that I’d have to stop and turn to more open work. Work that I felt was more optimistic--where for example, there might be just one single opening, and the space beyond it was like opening up into the heavens, going up into space, feeling space. The other kind of work was like war equipment. With teeth. Not many people realize that. But the funny thing is that those canvases ended in German museums or Israeli ones. Just where they belonged, without my saying a thing. One of those pieces went to the Jewish Museum in New York. It was a sort of memorial of my feelings. I never titled any of these. Once I started to and it seemed to limit people to a certain response, so I didn’t continue.”
Bontecou’s colorful, vacuum formed plastic sculpture and related drawings, which flopped in that last show at Castelli’s, are not an easy read. The naturalistic forms deemed sweet or maternal by some critics emerged at the same time as Rachel Carson’s wake-up call, Silent Spring. Bontecou reflects that the flowers, in their way, were saying, “Okay, we have to have plants. If you don’t watch out, this is all we’ll have to remember what flowers used to look like, this kind of flower that is made out of plastic.”
The exhibition's “What have you made for us lately?” category harbors complex, surreal drawings with their compliments of delicate, beautifully crafted, otherworldly sculpture, hanging suspended from slender rods, radiating planes of dangling ceramic orbs and galaxies into space. Their first public exposure is well timed. Pattern and decoration are being revisited, the feminization of architecture celebrated, and Frank Gehry-like forms are flowing.
Bontecou’s earlier successes embraced modernism’s aestheticizing of industrial materials, before beauty was reinvented. Her largest public sculpture, (Lincoln Center, 1964), featured the Plexiglas turret of a World War II bomber. Life magazine’s cover lead, “It’s art, but will it fly?,” also works for a viewer trying to get a better perspective on Nancy Rubins’ dynamically balanced tower of aircraft detritus recently installed on MOCA’s plaza. Along with a predilection to make art from airplane parts, these women share the ability to balance marriage to artist husbands with art making and teaching. In what reads like a tribute to Bontecou’s amazing career, Rubins’ remarks, "What students don't understand is that having an M.F.A. means nothing. You have to make yourself an artist. You have to last through time."
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