press release

The first-ever retrospective of Lee Bontecou's work opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, (MCA) on February 14, 2004. Curated by Elizabeth Smith, James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator at the MCA, in association with Ann Philbin, Director of the UCLA Hammer Museum, this is the most comprehensive exhibition ever assembled of this influential 20th century American artist- one of the few women artists to receive major recognition beginning in the 1960s. The exhibition features approximately 70 sculptures and 80 drawings from private and public collections as well as from the artist's own holdings. It documents the complexity and scope of Bontecou's art, from the late 1950s through 2003, with many works that have rarely or never before been publicly shown during the past 30 years.

"I have long been fascinated by the work of Lee Bontecou and her impact on the art world," says the exhibition curator Elizabeth Smith. "Her work emanates an energy and vitality that is rare to find so consistently throughout an artist's career. Although Bontecou withdrew from the museum and gallery circuit many years ago, I felt that it was very important to finally present a complete retrospective of her work to show the full range of her accomplishment. She can now be understood not only as a figure of major significance in the 1960s, but as an artist whose work continues to have relevance for and currency with that of many younger artists and directions in contemporary art today."

Robert Fitzpatrick, Pritzker Director of the MCA, observes, "One of the first projects Elizabeth Smith spoke about from the time she came to the MCA was a retrospective of Lee Bontecou's work. Her commitment to this exhibition and to bringing the work of this artist back to the public has been an extraordinary curatorial achievement."

This exhibition was jointly organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. The national sponsor of the exhibition is Altria Group, Inc. The national tour is made possible by The Henry Luce Foundation; The National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency; The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; Friedrike Merck; and Sarah-Ann and Werner H. Kramarsky. The accompanying catalogue was made possible, in part, by Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro. The Ruth and Murray Gribin Foundation. The Chicago presentation is generously sponsored by the Sara Lee Foundation. Additional generous support has been provided by Helen and Sam Zell, Marilynn B. Alsdorf, and Beatrice Cummings Mayer. Air transportation is provided by American Airlines, the official airline of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Accommodations are provided by the Fitzpatrick Chicago.

THE ARTIST Lee Bontecou (b. 1931) created a strikingly innovative body of work, including large and small-scale sculptures and drawings in a range of media. The work that brought Bontecou early critical attention- created between 1959 and approximately 1967- incorporates her pioneering technique of stretching canvas over welded metal armatures to create wall reliefs that are both painting and sculpture.

Bontecou enjoyed early success in the art world, and her work quickly entered major museum and private collections. Her first one-person exhibition took place in 1960 at Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, where she was the only female artist among a group that included Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Donald Judd, Jasper Johns, and James Rosenquist. She was represented in several exhibitions in the early 1960s at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, including Americans (1963), and had a 1972 mid-career retrospective at the MCA. Despite immediate recognition for her work, Bontecou began to withdraw from the New York art scene at the height of her fame in the early 1970s following her last solo show at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1971. Little of her subsequent work has been seen in the past 30 years.

Bontecou was a faculty member of the art department at Brooklyn College, where she taught until her retirement in 1991. Throughout her teaching career, she worked in seclusion at her studio in rural Pennsylvania- where she continues to live and work today. Renewed interest in Bontecou's art was sparked by a 1993 exhibition of her sculpture and drawings at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, also curated by Elizabeth Smith. The enigmatic Bontecou always worked free from the influence of other artists, while being greatly admired over the years by generations of art students as well as prominent artists including Eva Hesse, Donald Judd, Charles Ray, Nancy Rubins, Robert Gober, and Kiki Smith. "Bontecou is one of the best artists working anywhere," Judd wrote as a critic for Arts magazine in 1965, noting her ability to address "something as social as war to something as private as sex, making one an aspect of the other."

THE EXHIBITION Arranged chronologically, the exhibition provides an unprecedented look at Lee Bontecou's oeuvre by interweaving approximately 150 sculptures and drawings dating from 1957 to the present. During the past three decades Bontecou produced a significant body of sculptures and drawings that are highlighted alongside seminal earlier works. Although often abstract, these works reveal Bontecou's unique artistic vocabulary of forms incorporating a range of natural as well as mechanistic references. Her imagery and subjects range from the dark orifices of her earliest pieces- suggestive of war, violence, nature and the cosmos- to a pronounced ecological emphasis in her sculptures of flowers, fish and birds, to her recent preoccupation with forms resembling celestial bodies.

"The pieces included in this exhibition all demonstrate persistent characteristics of Bontecou's work, that of a deep sense of interconnection and mutability between abstraction and forms found in nature, as well as the recurrences of certain motifs that have preoccupied and fascinated Bontecou over decades," said Elizabeth Smith. "Her work has always elicited a wide spectrum of readings, reactions and responses. It is unsettling, otherworldly, surreal and fundamentally mysterious."

Examples of Bontecou's bronze and terracotta figurative pieces of fantastical birds and animals, created in the 1950s, open the exhibition. These early works, while figurative and traditional in nature, already show a tendency towards the abstract, as demonstrated by the bronze sculpture, Untitled, 1957. Bontecou maintains this balance between abstraction and representation throughout her career.

The exhibition continues with some of Bontecou's most recognized works, created between 1959 and 1967. These compelling signature works are primarily wall-mounted, three-dimensional sculptures that juxtapose elements of machines, nature, and the human body. These works were formally groundbreaking, using canvas and other fabrics stretched over welded steel frames. This technique enabled her to create lightweight pieces increasingly large in scale.

Most of the works from this period received instant recognition and were acquired by major institutions and collectors. They are rough and powerful objects alluding to sexuality and violence as much as to machines. Bontecou consistently employs the motif of a dark circular opening in these works, a strong formal element that can be interpreted as biological or cosmological. The presence of these openings- equal parts orifice and void- creates a sense of mystery and genuine darkness as the result of the actual space contained within her three-dimensional objects. Another theme animating Bontecou's work- war and violence- is expressed in her use of such objects and images as guns, airplane fuselages and other army surplus. Included in the exhibition is a 1959 steel sculpture depicting an abstracted machine gun- a reminder of the effects of Cold-War paranoia on Bontecou.

Drawings included from this early period also show increasing references to airplanes and airplane parts, the wings of birds and other anthropomorphic and mechanomorphic elements. On view are several soot drawings dated between 1962 and 1964. Calling these drawings "worldscapes," Bontecou used an acetylene torch with the oxygen turned low to create mysterious works that are evocative of outer space at a time when she was fascinated by advances in science and space exploration.

The style and intensity of Bontecou's work shifted after the birth of her daughter in the late 1960s, when she moved away from the dark tonalities and rough, aggressive character of her sculptures in canvas and steel to a gentler aesthetic defined by more naturalistic forms including cocoons, shells, fish and flowers. Her sculpture increasingly referred to nature and biological life- an interest that was first revealed in her earliest cast sculptures of birds and animals. This shift is exemplified in the exhibition by several chrysalis-like hanging sculptures of wood and silk created around 1967. Further evidence of Bontecou's departure from the rugged textures and receding spaces of her earlier works can be found in a group of drawings from 1964/65 and 1967/68 that show ballooning forms that are softer, more finished and protective.

In addition to using natural materials, such as wood and silk, Bontecou began to experiment with plastics, epoxy and other synthetic materials to create molded forms in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Several examples of vacuum-formed plastic flowers and fish are included in the exhibition and reflect Bontecou's continued search for new materials and techniques while working with recognizable plant and animal imagery. This body of work was inspired by Bontecou's increasing preoccupation with human degradation of the natural world; her plant and animal forms are sinister and mutated- one even wears a gas mask.

For a period of approximately 15 years beginning in the mid 1970s, Bontecou concentrated on her teaching and family responsibilities, while also continuing to draw and experiment with more intimately scaled sculpture. Drawings completed during this time reveal the wide range of images or fireballs, insect-like shapes, flowers, plants, eyes and- more recently- waves, landscapes, seascapes and birds.

Perhaps some of the most exciting works in the exhibition are those completed after Bontecou's retirement from teaching in 1991. During this time, Bontecou returned to some of the sculptures she had started during the 1980s and continued to expand a vocabulary she had first begun to explore in the late 1970s. This part of the exhibition features numerous works from Bontecou's studio that have never before been exhibited and that reference shapes and forms reminiscent of science fiction. Several intimately-scaled, small porcelain sculptures composed of interlocking parts evocative of outer space and galaxies are exhibited. Also on view are recent suspended porcelain and wire sculptures, explosive and celestial in nature, comprised of orbs and linkages that recall hybrid forms suggestive of something between a helicopter and an insect. In contrast to the rough-hewn appearance of her earlier works, these delicate pieces are extremely intricate, yet they manifest a similarly mysterious character based on forms found in nature.

Drawings play an important role in Bontecou's oeuvre throughout her career, and those from the late 1990s resonate powerfully with ideas and images expressed in her sculpture. She depicts fantastic landscapes and creatures in colored pencil drawings on paper. Synthesizing figurative, organic and mechanic references, both her sculptures and drawings suggest various states of transformation and transmutation between the natural and the man-made, order and chaos, delicacy and ferocity. Her work manifests an uncommon vibrancy and vitality that resonates with many younger artists, stemming from her ongoing insistence on encompassing, in her words, "as much of life as possible- no barriers- no boundaries- all freedom in every sense."

EXHIBITION CATALOGUE Accompanying the exhibition is a fully-illustrated catalogue with essays by Elizabeth Smith, the exhibition curator; Robert Storr, Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University; Donna De Salvo, senior curator at Tate Modern, London; art historian Mona Hadler; and the late artist Donald Judd. The extensively illustrated, 212-page catalogue is the first major monograph on Lee Bontecou and offers an extensive analysis of her career and her place in 20th century art. Published by MCA Chicago and UCLA Hammer Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc, the catalogue retails for $45 and can be ordered by calling the MCA Store at 312.397.4001.

ELIZABETH SMITH, EXHIBITION CURATOR Elizabeth Smith is James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator at the MCA, where she has oversight of the collection and exhibition program. Since joining the MCA in 1999 she has curated such exhibitions as Kerry James Marshall: One True Thing, Meditations on Black Aesthetics; Garofalo Architects: Between the Museum and the City;  Donald Moffett: What Barbara Jordan Wore; Matta in America: Paintings and Drawings of the 1940's; Katharina Fritsch; and Life Death Love Hate Pleasure Pain, a major reinstallation of the MCA's Collection.

Prior to joining the MCA, Smith was Curator at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles from 1983-99 where she curated and co-organized numerous exhibitions including At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture; Cindy Sherman: Retrospective; Toba Khedoori; Catherine Opie; Lee Bontecou: Sculpture and Drawings of the 1960s; Out of Order: Franklin D. Israel; Urban Revisions: Current Projects for the Public Realm; Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses. In 2000 she guest-curated the exhibition The Architecture of R.M. Schindler for MOCA, Los Angeles, which was named "Best Architecture or Design Exhibition of the Year" by the American section of the International Association of Art Critics.

Educated in art history at Columbia University, Smith was Adjunct Professor in the Public Art Studies Program at the University of Southern California's School of Fine Arts from 1992-98. She has published and lectured widely on topics in modern and contemporary art and architecture and in addition to the publications relating to her exhibitions has authored Techno Architecture (Thames & Hudson, 2000) and Case Study Houses: The Complete CSH Program 1945-66 (Taschen Verlag, 2002). She has served on numerous panels and juries including the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, the Presidential Design Awards, the Daimler/Chrysler Award, the Altoids "Curiously Strong" Awards for emerging artists, the Lucelia Award, and was a member of the architect selection committee for the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia. She is on the advisory committee of Independent Curators International, New York, and is a member of the board of overseers of the School of the Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Chicago. Pressetext

Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective
Kooperation: Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Kuratoren: Elizabeth Smith, James W. Alsdorf, Ann Philbin
05.10. - 11.01.2004 UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
28.07. - 27.09.2004 The Museum of Modern Art, New York