Lee Bontecou (born 1931) is best known for her pioneering abstract sculpture made of canvas, or rawhide, over a welded steel frame. She utilized such materials as repurposed conveyor belts discarded from a laundry near her studio on Avenue C in the East Village, retaining the grease stains. One such sculpture from 1961 is prominently displayed at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.
The artist wants viewers to form their own personal relationship to the imagery, not be bound by any one interpretation — even her own — so the works are always titled “Untitled.” In a rare statement, on the MoMA website, she says: “My concern is to build things that express our relation to this country — to other countries — to this world — to other worlds — to glimpse some of the fear, hope, ugliness, beauty, and mystery that exists in us all and which hangs over all the young people today.” The milieu in which she was working at the time — the Bay of Pigs invasion, troops sent to Vietnam, and the beginning of the construction of the Berlin Wall — fueled her art.
“Lee Bontecou: Drawn Worlds,” on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through Sunday, September 21, is the first retrospective of the artist’s drawings. It was organized by the Menil Collection in Houston, where the exhibition premiered in January. “Drawn Worlds” brings together more than 50 years of works on paper, from early soot drawings created with a welding torch to recent works in graphite and colored pencil.
Drawing for drawing’s sake is being celebrated for the second time this year at PUAM, on the heels of the Italian Master Drawings on view in spring. Said PUAM curator of prints and drawings Laura Giles of that exhibit: “Drawings are revelatory of the creative process; you can get close to an artist bringing ideas to life in a drawing that you don’t see in painting. People are transformed by this peeling away of the layers of the creative process. Works on paper may not be big, there’s no bling, but it’s very intimate.”
The same can be said of Bontecou’s drawings.
“Bontecou understands drawing as a process of discovery, a place to solve problems and a means to explore the imagination,” writes Menil Collection curator Michelle White. “Bontecou often goes back and forth between three and two dimensions. And though many of her drawings are formally intertwined with her sculptures, they ultimately stand on their own.”
The first piece one sees on entering the exhibition is a 1963 graphite and soot drawing on stretched muslin — a work in the PUAM’s collection that evokes the circular sculptures like the one at MoMA.
When Bontecou was a student in the 1950s, she traveled to Rome on a Fulbright Scholarship and saw the Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth), a man/god-like face carved from marble, located in the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, believed to be part of a first-century ancient fountain. According to legend, if you put your hand in the mouth and tell a lie, the sculpture will bite.
Many of Bontecou’s works — both the drawing and sculpture — are based on the circle, with a void at the center. Budding forms emerge from the dark. She has discussed her work in cosmic terms, with undulating circles and orb-like forms, relating to her fascination with Sputnik (1957) and new discoveries in science and technology — including black holes — that expand our understanding of the limits of the solar system.
“I had joy and excitement about outer space — nothing was known about black holes — just huge intangible, dangerous entities, and I felt great excitement when little Sputnik flew,” says the artist.
A graphite and soot drawing from 1963 looks like a spaceship heading toward you, or the headlights of a Ford Galaxie, itself inspired by the Space Age. Bontecou draws miniscule galaxies and forms that suggest war machines. When contemplating a stealth bomber, she says, “It’s a beautiful thing up in the air, a piece of sculpture! But what it does is horror.”
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Lee grew up in Westchester, New York. During her childhood World War II was an ever present force. Her mother worked in a factory wiring transmitters for submarine navigation, and her father sold gliders to the military. After the war, he worked with Grumman Aircraft and, with Bontecou’s uncle, invented the first all-aluminum canoe, based on aircraft technology.
Bontecou recalls drawing at home and making little clay figures. “I made a nice mess wherever I went.”
As a teenager, Bontecou and her mother took frequent train trips to attend art exhibitions in New York. An exhibition of Van Gogh at the Met made a strong impression.
She attended Bradford Junior College in Haverhill, Massachusetts, then enrolled in the Art Students League. Bontecou learned to weld at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. Studying with Kimon Nicolaides, she was taught that drawing requires physical contact with objects through the senses. Nicolaides encouraged students to look at the world for inspiration rather than to art history and theory.
While in Rome on a Fulbright scholarship, Bontecou discovered she could use a welding torch to draw, according to White. “Turning off the oxygen to an oxyacetylene torch, she deployed only an acetylene flame, which has such a low temperature that it does not set the paper on fire.” The flame produces soot, and Bontecou could move the torch back and forth and build up layers in gradated bands. “With its seductive, velvety presence and illusion of depth, the black soot generated a world of its own,” continues White.
After her return to the U.S., Bontecou met and married artist William Giles. From 1971 to 1991, she taught sculpture, design, and drawing at Brooklyn College, commuting to New York from a farm in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, where she and Giles raised their daughter.
In a work from 2011, Bontecou is still circling around the void. Writes art historian Dore Ashton: “The dark deep hole can be seen as an inspired evocation of a deep-seated human hunger of the axis mundi, the central point around which the cosmos operates.”
Another work from 2011 — used on the cover of the handsome catalog accompanying the exhibition — shows the evolution of Bontecou’s use of the void, here looking like a series of eyes — with orbiting spaceships, appended organs, tubes and teeth — staring out at us, or within us, as we stare back, making a deep connection between our inner selves and the artist’s through our eyes. Is it the void, or is it us? These are portals to the darkness of the soul.
“The void embodies death and absence but also becomes a generative space, holding potential for creation.”
Next to it is a soot and graphite on paper showing how Bontecou was contemplating the same themes in 1968. Imagery includes shark teeth, pipe fittings, and horseshoe crab. The artist had one strong vision/dream she has been exploring all her life.
The exhibition’s one assemblage is made of welded and painted steel, horseshoe crab shells, pipe fittings, velvet hooks, saw blocks, velveteen, and soot. Horizontal slats are painted in variegated shades of white to gray to black and sets of shark teeth snarl and smile.
The vertical bands, begun in the 1970s, convey prison bars, suffocation, and entrapment, containing creatures with teeth and eyeballs.
Underworld sea creatures from 1970, rendered in colored pencil and white charcoal on black paper — light reflects off the silvery pencil lines — look primeval and primordial, with carefully articulated bone structure, scales, and fins. Biomorphic forms with her signature teeth, pupils, voids, and plant-like forms spewing anthers, stigmas, stamens, and filaments appear in 1993 in another work on black paper.
Imaginary sea creatures are a recurring subject — hybrid monsters with reptilian scales, spongy anemone-like plant forms. “The deep dark heart of her oeuvre is a pulsing reverence for the biological world,” writes White. Bontecou’s understanding of skeletal anatomy enables her to invent creatures from the inside out.
Even a small pencil drawing can draw your attention inward, studying the tiny detail and meditating on its meaning and suggestion.
At work in her studio, Bontecou listened to programming from the United Nations on short-wave radio. It was her background music, and the anger it made her feel as the world situation became part of the process. “Rockefeller was trying to push bomb shelters on us. Africa was in trouble, and we were so negative,” she said at the time. Bontecou hoped her work could offer the chance to “glimpse some of the fear, hope, ugliness, and beauty that exists in all of us and which hangs over all the young people today,” she wrote in 1963.
Her early enchantment with nature was inspired by childhood summers in Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia. She was an avid swimmer and diver, and many of her forms and textures derive from the surface of the sand and sea. Her feelings for the natural world heightened during the growing environmental movement and after reading Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962. Recurring symbols include avian skulls, crab shells, saw blades, submarines, fish, gas masks, and aeronautical and automotive parts.
Bontecou considers the process of drawing a metaphoric journey into an alternate and intangible realm. “You can travel miles within a drawing and not have to take all the baggage along. I always envied poets because of that fact; they can take the pencil in their head.”
Lee Bontecou: Drawn Worlds, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, through, Sunday, September 21, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free.
Princeton University Art Museum’s Summer Exhibitions Celebration, “Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell,” and “Lee Bontecou: Drawn Worlds,” Thursday, July 17, featuring the lecture related to the Rothko-Richter exhibition, “Mark, Maker, Method” by Kelly Baum, curator of modern and contemporary art., 5:30 p.m., followed by music and refreshments, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Free. For more information: www.princetonartmuseum.org or 609-258-3788.