Lee Bontecou turned Sputniks and black holes into art

Eat me, say the black teeth in an untitled work from 1961 by American sculptor Lee Bontecou. In the work, a black metal thing laughs at you from a round hole surrounded by canvas, metal and rope. Bontecou, ​​the artist who gave the black hole in art a whole new meaning, died last Tuesday in Florida at the age of 91.

When Bontecou (1931) broke through in the New York art world in the late 1950s, her idiosyncratic work was admired, but critics also found it difficult to place. What did this female artist do with the dirty, sooty, discarded canvases that she had stitched together or stretched over steel? These sewn pieces suggested a kind of void where a lot of meanings could be unleashed. Feminists concluded that Bontecou had imagined the vagina in an aggressive, industrialized male society with the black hole. They placed her in the second wave of feminism, with Bontecou as the portrait of femininity biting off or neglected and yet holding on, with the vagina as metaphor and core.

Also read: Art history can do without men

Nonsense, Bontecou explained, that had nothing to do with such characteristics. On the contrary, she was convinced that you could not tell from a work whether it was made by a man or a woman. Those who wanted to interpret the holes had better turn to the black holes in space. In an interview in the 1970s, looking back on her huge success in the 1960s when she made wall-filling structures out of various materials, she explained that she found space an exciting concept. “Nothing was known about black holes, only that they were huge, unassailable and dangerous entities. I was very excited when little Sputniks flew through space with the black holes.”

The discovery of the black hole

Bontecou discovered how to make black holes when she was in Rome in 1957 and 1958, on a scholarship she had received after completing her studies in New York and Maine. While there focusing on terracotta birds, she discovered how, while welding and shutting off the oxygen from a welding torch, you could make huge holes, the deepest black ones. Bontecou called the works that followed worldviews. She also incorporated war materials such as helmets and gas masks into her wall sculptures, including one in 1964 at New York’s Lincoln Center. She confronted the viewer with the atrocities man was capable of. Art as machine or room model.

Meanwhile, she had solo and group exhibitions with Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Frank Stella at New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery.

The success surrounding the work also had a downside. It happened when, in 1971, Bontecou exhibited works at the Leo Castelli Gallery that no longer had the hardness of the well-known work, but which looked more delicate and less abstract (there were suddenly fish and flowers made of plastic). The reception was mixed. New York Times rejected the work as “unsatisfactory”.

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Bontecou concentrated on teaching, disappeared from the art scene in New York and seemed out of sight. Until she got sick. What to do with all that work, she later explained in interviews? She agreed to a retrospective of her work coming in 2003, in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. In 2010, MoMa in New York again presented a major retrospective exhibition with the revealing title All freedom in every sense. An excellent summary of her work that seemed so endless, full of black holes, parts of which seemed to be flying off into space at any moment.

Also read this review: Space traveler Bontecou

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