I thought Lee Bontecou was dead. I saw her work for the first time twenty years ago in the Nelson Rockefeller collection that is housed in the pedestrian walkway beneath the New York state capital in Albany. I remember standing awestruck in front of a massive welded steel construction, tightly covered with coarse discolored canvas and a mysterious opening at the center, teasing, daring me to reach inside. This was art of bone deep integrity, and it was created by a woman -- something rare in museums at the time. Who was this woman? I never took the time to ferret that out, but I also never forgot that work of art, nor Lee Bontecou's name, which tended to bubble out of the ether now and again. The August 4 issue of The New Yorker is where I discovered that Lee Bontecou is very much still alive and she's been working all these years.
I learned from Calvin Tomkins' essay, which is in advance of a major retrospective of Bontecou's work scheduled for the U.C.L.A. Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and, finally, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, that Bontecou never did keep company with other artists. She was the only woman in Leo Castelli's stable at the same time he was introducing Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, but her affinities were with the abstract expressionists, especially Willem deKooning and Franz Kline.
Her work was exhibited in three Whitney Museum Annual Exhibitions and in the Museum of Modern Art's "Art of Assemblage," and "Americans 1963" exhibits, and then she just disappeared, dropped out. There was lots of speculation as to why in art world circles, but Lee Bontecou just kept living her life.
She married a fellow sculptor and had a daughter. She and her husband bought a farm in rural Pennsylvania. She spent one night a week in Manhattan in order to teach at Brooklyn College for twenty years, but never revealed to her students that she had been an art star. She cared for her ailing father and took in injured animals. Since her home is forty-five minutes from the nearest grocery store, she keeps a garden and puts up vegetables for the winter.
"Lee's life is seamless." Bontecou's husband, Bill Giles, is quoted in The New Yorker as saying, "Gardening, making sculpture, cooking dinner it's all part of the same process."
At a time when the world beyond my close and mostly loving community seems to be steadily unraveling, I find this statement deeply comforting. Lee Bontecou didn't need to measure her work by "contemporary" standards. She just narrowed the distractions and made her work an integral part of her life. "I'm in the art world," Bontecou told the curator of the coming exhibition, and over a period of thirty years, she quietly produced what promises to be an astonishing body of work. This is, of course, not a model for all of us. Feedback and validation is something everyone needs, regardless of their pursuit, and Lee Bontecou received it early. But it brings to mind something Marsha Tucker said in her keynote address to a symposium last February at the Denver Art Museum, in conjunction with the "Retrospectacle" exhibition: "Art doesn't just reflect meaning it creates it."
Put another way, art doesn't just enhance our humanity, it is our humanity. Everything human beings make, from the meals we eat, to the clothes we wear, to the shelter we inhabit, partakes of art if we let it and the great tragedy of contemporary life is that our popular and commercial culture relentlessly attempts to undermine this delightful fact. Everything comes with an interface, and a price, and it seems sometimes that just taking the time to prepare a meal from scratch is a kind of social defiance. Anger and sadness at the state of the world can become so pervasive that they numb us to the daily pleasures that cumulatively give our lives shape and meaning.
Right now the most radical and existentially coherent act of art making may be to make art of our lives. Bruce Nauman has done this with long video loops such as the one documenting his careful placement of a "The Perfect Corner" fence post on his New Mexico ranch. It was a part of his life, and so it became his art. Coincidentally, it works perfectly as a metaphor for how we interact with the material world we set up edifices, we construct boundaries.
Boundaries are interesting, inherently human. We can keep the different parts of our lives separate and distinct counterproductive if we are aiming for seamlessness or we can find a way, as Lee Bontecou did, to create a "safe zone" in which to nurture ourselves, our families, and our art.