Return of the Native
It's a bit of fine spectator sport to watch the art world's
backflips (and backpedalling) over the unexpected reappearance
of American sculptor Lee Bontecou.
Her name rang no bells with me; one of my art students passed
along a fascinating biographical piece which had run earlier
in the year in the New Yorker. The long and the short of it
is this: Bontecou, now 72, had been a New York art world darling
of the 1950s and '60s. She was the only woman in the Castelli
Gallery's stable of high powered and influential artists.
Well regarded, well-reviewed and in-the-swim as the Soho Art
Scene began its' ascendancy in the late '60s, she seemed to
be on the proverbial fast-track to codified artistic fame.
Her complex mixed-media constructions suggested jet engines,
or creatures both organic and manmade. Then, in 1971, she
showed a group of large plastic fish and flowers with small
tubes protruding from them. They looked as if they might have
been creatures unhooked from life support; Bontecou believed
that they reflected the growing public concern about the consequences
of environmental neglect.
The reviews were scathing.
So she vanished from the world's hottest art scene for the
better part of 30 years. She taught, moved out to rural Pennsylvania,
and worked-continuously, creatively, on pieces big and complex.
The current retrospective gives audiences the chance to evaluate
both her 'old' and 'new' statements. (Now up in LA at the
Hammer Museum, the show will move to Chicago and then to New
As fascinating as the work that this now white-haired lady
sculptor has produced, equally fascinating, perhaps, is the
response to her reappearance in the art world. The art press
has been wringing its' hands and breathlessly asking "How
could she do it!?? How could she have gotten along without
us?? How could such great work have been produced out on a
farm in Pennsylvania-so far from the intellectual stimulations
This chest-puffing offers us a really funny sideshow; 'The
World of Serious Art' is still convinced that "Real Talent"
can only be nurtured within a few square blocks of real estate
in New York, or, say, London and Paris. This concept, dating
back to the 1940s, was already losing traction by the time
Lee Bontecou 'vanished'. Now, in our fully wired, interactive
and decentralized world, it seems a truly ancient concept.
Lee Bontecou's powerful reemergence from her creative 'exile'
should finally put an end to those old ideas. Artists everywhere