Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Lee Bontecou attended the Art Students League of New York from 1952 to 1955, where she studied with the sculptor William Zorach before traveling to Rome on a Fulbright scholarship. While studying in Rome in 1957, Bontecou began making drawings with soot. She drew on the canvas with a welding torch, creating dark, otherworldly abstractions. “Getting the black. . .opened everything up. It was like dealing with the outer limits. . .I had to find a way of harnessing it.” Black continued to play a part in her work after her return to New York, even as she transitioned into large-scale, sculptural forms. Bontecou lived above a laundry, and she began using discarded pieces of material and machines from the laundry in her sculpture. Discolored canvas came together with twisted wire and worn-out conveyor belts, creating volcanic shapes with deep black craters. The resulting assemblages were mounted on the wall, even though they protruded out several feet. “I want to get sculpture off the floor and on the wall,” she declared.
Bontecou garnered considerable critical attention for her first solo exhibition at the Leo Castelli gallery in 1960. She continued to work on the wall sculptures, adding materials from hardware and army surplus stores. She also cultivated an interest in airplanes, including aerodynamic elements in her work. In the 1970s, she experimented with Styrofoam, using it to sculpt plastic fish and plants, which she then placed in a vacuum press. During this period, Bontecou began to work in relative isolation in her western Pennsylvania studio. She taught art at Brooklyn College for over twenty years and continued to produce art, but stopped exhibiting her work publicly. After recovering from a serious bone marrow disease, she began exhibiting her work again in 2003. That year, the Hammer Museum at UCLA mounted a career retrospective of the artist’s work, with half of the pieces coming from her unseen cache.
Mona Hadler, Lee Bontecou’s “Warnings,” Art Journal, Vol. 53, No. 4, Sculpture in Postwar Europe and America, 1945-59, (Winter 1994) 56.
Jo Applin, “This Threatening and Possibly Functioning Object: Lee Bontecou and the Sculptural Void,” Art History, Association of Art Historians, Blackwell Publishing, 2006, 482.