Lee Bontecou

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Lee Bontecou
Lee Bontecou's untitled work from 1959.jpg
Untitled, welded steel, canvas, black fabric and wire, 1959
Born (1931-01-15) January 15, 1931 (age 85)
Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.
Nationality American
Education Art Students League of New York
Known for Sculpture, Printmaking
Awards Fulbright scholarship, Rome 1957-1958; Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, 1959

Lee Bontecou (born January 15, 1931 in Providence, Rhode Island) is a productive American sculptor and printmaker and a pioneer figure in the New York art world. She was one of a small number of female artists skilled in welding sculptures. She kept her work consistently in a recognizable style, and received broad recognition in the 1960s. Bontecou made abstract sculptures in the 1960s and 1970s and created vacuum-formed plastic fish, plants, and flower forms in 1970s. Rich, organic shapes and powerful energy appear in her drawings, prints and sculptures. Her work has been shown and collected in many mainstream museums.

Early life and education[edit]

Bontecou attended Bradford Junior College (now Bradford College) in Haverhill, Massachusetts for her general education and then attended the Art Students League of New York from 1952 to 1955, where she studied with the sculptor William Zorach.[1] She also spent the summer of 1954 at Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Maine, where she learned to weld. She received a Fulbright scholarship from the U.S.-Italy Fulbright Commission to study in Rome in 1957-1958.[1]

Bontecou's father, Russell, was a salesman. She has an older brother, Frank.


Bontecou is best known for the sculptures she created in 1959 and the 1960s, which challenged artistic conventions of both materials and presentation by hanging on the wall like a painting. They consist of welded steel frames covered with recycled canvas (such as conveyor belts or mail sacks) and other found objects. Her best constructions are at once mechanistic and organic, abstract but evocative of the brutality of war. Art critic Arthur Danto describes them as "fierce", reminiscent of 17th-century scientist Robert Hooke's Micrographia, lying "at the intersection of magnified insects, battle masks, and armored chariots...”.[2] She exhibited at Leo Castelli's art gallery in the 1960s.[3] One of the largest examples of her work is located in the lobby of the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, which was commissioned by the architect Philip Johnson.[4] From the 1970s until 1991 she taught in the Art Department at Brooklyn College.[4]

She retired from the art world to Orbisonia, Pennsylvania.[2][5] After decades of obscurity, she was brought back to public attention by a 2003 retrospective co-organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, that traveled to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2004. The retrospective included both work from her public, art-world career and an extensive display of work done after retreating from the public view.[2] Bontecou's work was also included in the Carnegie International 2004-5 exhibit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art presented a retrospective of Bontecou's work entitled All Freedom in Every Sense.[5]


While Bontecou has earned the reverence of women artists, she has been reluctant to embrace a feminist perspective, emphasizing the openness, autonomy and engineering processes central to her work. Her work has been characterized by references to the synergy between nature and fiction, resulting naturalistically rendered creatures, with grotesquely morphed features.[6]

Techniques and Materials[edit]

Lee Bontecou works with many materials, like metal, paper and plastic. She works with unconventional materials and discovers new techniques. She uses an oxyacetylene torch to produce a carbon spray from the flame. She discovered this herself. She turns the torch off to create this effect. Her images look "airbrushed".[7] She sprays the carbon onto paper so she could scrape it off. She creates sketches that are diagrams of particular sculptures.

Public collections[edit]

Bontecou's work can be seen in a number of public institutions, including:


In 1959, Bontecou received the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award. In 2004, she was elected into the National Academy of Design.[14]

Art market[edit]

Bontecou is represented by her sole agent, Bill Maynes.

Personal life[edit]

Bontecou is married to the artist William Giles with whom she has a daughter, Valerie.[15]


A picture of Bontecou working in her studio, taken by Italian photographer Ugo Mulas in 1963, was used as the cover art for Spoon’s 2007 album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.[16] The apparently completed sculpture on the right is now in the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art.


  1. ^ a b c "Lee Bontecou", The Whitney Museum of American Art, Retrieved 22 December 2014.
  2. ^ a b c Danto 2004
  3. ^ "Lee Bontecou", Britannica, Retrieved 22 December 2014.
  4. ^ a b Trachtman, Paul. "Lee Bontecou's Brave New World", Smithsonian Magazine, Retrieved 24 December 2014.
  5. ^ a b Rooney, Kara L. (July–August 2010). "Lee Bontecou: All Freedom in Every Sense". The Brooklyn Rail. 
  6. ^ Butler, C., et al. Eds. 2010. Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA.
  7. ^ Rosenberg, Karen (2014-07-24). "‘Lee Bontecou: Drawn Worlds,’ an Artist’s Other Side". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-12-10. 
  8. ^ "Lee Bontecou", Cleveland Museum of Art, Retrieved 22 December 2014.
  9. ^ "Lee Bontecou", MCA Chicago, Retrieved 22 December 2014.
  10. ^ "MFAH Collections: Untitled", Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Retrieved 22 December 2014.
  11. ^ "Lee Bontecou", Museum of Modern Art, Retrieved 22 December 2014.
  12. ^ "Bontecou, Lee", National Gallery of Art, Retrieved 22 December 2014.
  13. ^ "Lee Bontecou", Walker Art Center, Retrieved 22 December 2014.
  14. ^ National Academicians | National Academy Museum
  15. ^ Tapp, Mara. "Lee Bontecou Doesn't Care What You Think". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 4 February 2016. 
  16. ^ "Spoon Frontman Britt Daniel on a Career of Album Covers", Juxtapoz Magazine, Retrieved 24 December 2014.


  • Applin, Jo (June 2006) "This threatening and possibly functioning object: Lee Bontecou and the Sculptural Void", Art History 29:3, pp. 476–503
  • Danto, Arthur (2004) "A Tribe Called Quest", The Nation, September 27, 2004, p. 40-43
  • Dreishpoon, Douglas (1996) "From a curator's point of view: making selections and forging connections: Lee Bontecou, Eva Hesse, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Brice Marden, Robert Morris, Robert Smithson / Douglas Dreishpoon", Weatherspoon Art Gallery, University of North Carolina at Greensboro,
  • Molesworth, Helen Anne (2005) "Part Object Part Sculpture", Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University
  • Smith, Elizabeth A.T.; Ann Philbin (2003). Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective. Dona De Salvo, Mona Hadler, Donald Judd, Robert Storr. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago with Harry N. Abrams Inc. ISBN 0-8109-4618-1. 

Krygier, Irit Career Interrupted on artnet http://www.artnet.com/magazine/features/krygier/krygier10-28-03.asp

  • Hadler, Mona (2007) “Lee Bontecou: Plastic Fish and Grinning Saw Blades,” Woman’s Art Journal,Vol XXVIII, No. 1 (Spring/Summer, 2007), pp. 12–18
  • Hadler, Mona (1994), "Lee Bontecou's 'Warnings'," Art Journal,Vol.LIII,No. 4(Winter,1994) , pp. 56–61.
  • Rosenberg, Karen. "Sketching When the Pencil Requires Ignition Lee Bontecou:Drawn Worlds an Artist's Other Side." The New York Times 24 July 2014: n. pag. Print.

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