An MCA retrospective of a career spanning half a century is the occasion for a conversation with the artist and her curator, Elizabeth Smith.

Lee Bontecou seems surprisingly dainty standing by her great abstract sculptures in the main-floor galleries of the Museum of Contemporary Art. But she spent years crawling around the dark, forbidding planes and curves of these pieces, first welding together their light metal skeletons and then stretching canvas across them. Painted in dark, ominous earth tones, they seem to pop off the white museum walls. The largest, nearly seven by ten feet, is part of the MCA’s permanent collection.

This pioneering work put Bontecou on the art charts in the 1960s. But much of it has been in hiding for some 30 years, since she fled New York City. She taught art at Brooklyn College for 15 years, but since the early 1970s she’s made art in a barn in rural Pennsylvania. Little of that has ever been shown.

One recent afternoon the artist sat for an interview in the MCA cafe. Joining her was Elizabeth A.T. Smith, the MCA’s chief curator.

A short walk away, some 70 sculptures and 80 drawings from private and public collections, as well as the artist’s own holdings were being assembled in the museum’s galleries for the show that opened here February 14, the most comprehensive exhibition of Bontecou’s work to date. (It was at UCLA’s Hammer Museum from last October into January.) Many of the works had never been seen publicly. Across the hall from Bontecou’s hulking sculpture, delicate transparent plastic flowers–some two feet tall–were being arranged on tables, and plastic fish, the work that occupied Bontecou in the 1970s, hung from the ceilings. Then there was her most recent work–animalistic assemblages of porcelain, steel, cloth, and wire that made me think of Georgia O’Keeffe meeting Salvador Dali.

Born in 1931, Bontecou had her first solo exhibition at New York’s prestigious Leo Castelli Gallery in 1960, becoming the only female artist in a stable that included Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Donald Judd, and Jasper Johns. In 1972 she had a midcareer retrospective at the MCA. By then she was withdrawing from New York, along with her artist husband, William Giles, and their daughter, Valerie. A 1993 exhibition of her sculpture and drawings at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, also curated by Smith, brought the two women together and renewed interest nationally in Bontecou’s work.

Mara Tapp: What’s the first piece of Lee Bontecou’s art that you remember seeing?

Elizabeth Smith: I was traveling around the country a great deal in the early 90s. I would go to the museums in every city I went to and I would see Lee’s work in practically every collection–the Walker [Minneapolis], the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum, MoMA, of course, and the Whitney. I began thinking about the work and feeling very interested in it and wanting to know more about it.

MT: The work that you saw was the big constructions done in the 60s?

Es: Right. I found them very compelling. They’re incredible objects. I had studied Lee in school, of course, as a student, and I knew of her and knew of her work, but I hadn’t really seen much of it. So that was what sort of got me started on wanting to know more. I thought I could do an interesting small show of work from the 1960s because I could borrow it mostly from public collections.

MT: Since the work was present but Ms. Bontecou was not, that creates an interesting problem for a curator, doesn’t it?

ES: Sure. Most of the time you work closely with a living artist if you’re going to do a show of their work, but Lee was difficult to find and I did try–

Lee Bontecou: I didn’t respond ’cause I still didn’t want to talk about those works.

MT: Why?

LB: I wanted to experiment and I wanted

the freedom. It wasn’t anything to do with Elizabeth.

MT: She was just one other person sending you notes and leaving messages for you?

LB: We just talked on the phone one day and she said, “Well I’m gonna do a show,” and I said, “OK, but I just don’t feel like being involved.”

MT: What year was this?

ES: The show took place in ’93.

MT: So you talked to her and what made you change your mind?

LB: Well, bleaaahhh.

ES: That’s a long story.

LB: I had this work, the new work, and those pieces were mainly finished. I’d worked on all of them at once practically, except for the little ones, but then I got really sick. I mean really sick to the point of “Well, maybe I’ll make it or maybe I won’t,” and then I realized I can’t leave this stuff for Vallie and my husband to deal with if I have to get out of here. So it just happened.

I think you [turning to Smith] just wrote a letter. It came and said you’d like to see the new work, and I just said, “Well this may be the time.”

MT: I’m wondering also if there wasn’t something about her that convinced you that your work would be safe in her hands.

LB: That wasn’t a problem in my head.

ES: I felt lucky to receive an invitation from Lee to go and see what she had been working on ’cause, of course, I was quite fascinated–

MT: I’m pressing you on this not to be rude, but it just seems that, as wonderful as Elizabeth Smith is, she came to you representing this world that you’d backed away from–

LB: I didn’t.

MT: If that’s the wrong word, correct me please.

LB: I just went because I wanted to work, and also I was having a child and all kinds of things. My father was living with us at one point. A lot of things change in your life. And then I was teaching. I hadn’t backed away. You can’t be more involved in the arts than teaching. You’re working with other brains, you know. I was right smack in Brooklyn. People say, “You dodged the art world.” Well, heck, they were the art world. I was the art world. I didn’t dodge it.

MT: I’m wondering if part of the reason that you took another avenue is the idea that you needed to sort of free yourself from this–

LB: Oh! Oh! Oh! Yeah. I wanted to experiment, and you can’t if you get–I guess I had–some notoriety. And the whole New York scene changed too. The loft I was in, the factory sold out. Another one came in–24 hours a day. Boom boxes. And then the galleries came down there and then the boutiques came down there and you can’t afford [to live in SoHo] so we just decided it’s time. We wanted Vallie to maybe not be in the city. Oh, she went to school there for a little while, and then that nice school crumbled so. [She laughs.]

MT: There’s the ugly press of gentrification, although we didn’t call it that in those days. But let me try this theory out on both of you. It seems to me that there was maybe a certain irritation at being cast in one way or another–

LB: Oh yeah. Oh yeah–

MT: And that going away allowed you to call it on your own terms.

LB: I didn’t think that at all. I wanted to work, and I didn’t think all of those things out. You think of that maybe now. There wasn’t an it. I wasn’t that smart. I was too young, you know.

MT: I wonder if it’s smart or if it’s just that sometimes the world of journalism and criticism and maybe even art history imposes things on artists–

LB: Sure it does!

MT: There’s content and there’s politics, of course, but the main drive is to get it done, whatever that takes.

ES: I think there’s also an enormous pressure that many artists feel when they have to produce work for a gallery show, a museum show. It’s like you’re expected to have a new body of work every year or two years. I know that you worked on some of your pieces over many years without that time pressure.

LB: And they wouldn’t have been as good if I’d just pushed ’em out. They wouldn’t have been finished.

MT: I see three really distinct phases–

LB: There may be three phases and many more but with the new work I’ve done I’ve delved back into the old work. And then you push it further.

MT: Does the newer stuff take the strongest elements of the two previous phases and put them together?

ES: You might say that.

LB: I don’t want people to [tell me], “Go and do some more of the same stuff ’cause we’re selling this stuff well.” And that’s happened. I’ve watched a lot of young artists, when I was young and they were young, and some of them came in with far more of a statement, and they wanted that over and over [hits table] and over until they just left. They had to. And I think they had a heck of a time getting out of that.

ES: A lot of people fall into that trap.

LB: Because they made such success out of it.

MT: I look at the early work, with its strong, welded, machinelike quality, and then I look at the fishes and the flowers, which have a different quality, though some of the techniques are shared. And then I look at the newer stuff. I can see elements of both. It makes logical sense to me, in terms of technique, but maybe that’s just a function of getting older and working with the materials over a period of years.

LB: Yes, that’s right, and the plastic things–it was just really great fun, after doing all that other work, to do old-fashioned carving and then put it into a strange little machine that, in ten minutes, you’ve got the pieces. Then, of course, you put them together but, man, for a sculptor that was really catharsis. Drawing can do it but this is even more because it was sculpture. It was holy smoke, you know. [She laughs.]

ES: That must have been fun.

LB: Well, pulling that hot stuff down over that and then sucking it out from underneath, and then when it cooled you just popped that Styrofoam out of there. [She laughs.]

MT: You loved the process of all of this.

ES: You can see it in the work.

MT: When you’re working on your art, do you just get totally immersed?

LB: Sure.

MT: You said some pieces you come back to, that some pieces take a long time. So the immersion comes and goes?

LB: Oh sure. Come in and work, get into it, and then maybe you need a rest. You go back to it again.

MT: I’m wondering about the role of your husband, and if the fact that he’s also an artist had an effect on your art.

LB: No.

MT: Do you talk about your work?

LB: No. No. No we don’t. Both of us are just not the kind to talk. We go our separate ways in that sense. I don’t even think, with my friends, we talk ever about the intellectual part of it. I think I did maybe when we were in art school.

MT: Could you talk a little bit about your family–your father’s work and your mother’s work during World War II and about going out and looking up at the northern lights with your mother and brother? Can you tell that wonderful story and talk a little bit about how all this comes into your art?

LB: I don’t know if it does, but anything you remember affects you. It was in Westchester–like in the middle of the night. She did it a couple of times at night. We just went out to the athletics field, laid up, and it was amazing. It went from one hemisphere to another, like a kaleidoscope, and it went on and on and then it turned to color and it whipped and you could smell it. The ozone you could smell.

MT: You could smell it?

LB: It had a real smell.

MT: Was it your pop and your uncle that invented the first aluminum canoe?

LB: I told that to the New Yorker and they have to check everything. [It didn’t check out.] My uncle was an engineer and my dad–they were fishermen. That’s all. They wanted a canoe. They’d go down rapids

and they’d rack ’em up and they couldn’t patch ’em on the spot so they decided, “Hey, let’s get an aluminum canoe. It’d be lighter.” So they went up to the aluminum company in Canada. They stretched the stuff out and put the bulkheads in either end–I think it was like a 13-footer–and they went around in that, full of dents and stuff. Didn’t matter.

MT: What interests me is you’re exposed to this notion of engineering, of putting things together.

LB: Well, yeah. It’s in my mom. She worked on transformers and stuff like that. And then she and her friend, a woman, they would have theirs work and the others didn’t. Then the union [came in] and my father said, “Margaret, you cannot buck the union. You know, you do not do that. You’re gonna be hurt.” And so she stopped.

MT: A lot of people didn’t grow up that way. They didn’t have mothers who worked or who pushed them or who would have never thought of saying, “You’re a girl. Don’t do that.”

LB: Right.

MT: It sounds to me like you were reared a feminist. I wonder if that comes through in the work at all, or is it just a label that you didn’t even think about?

LB: I don’t even like it.

MT: Why?

LB: Because art is art and it doesn’t mean whether it’s woman or man. It doesn’t matter. And it’s just, like, another thing to have to fight.

MT: Isn’t that a supremely feminist statement, though? Art is art. Period. It shouldn’t be woman art, man art. It’s art.

LB: Right. OK. All right. When I started, they wanted my things [to be] completely wimp feminine, and the gallery wanted to push that and I just wanted to throw up.

MT: Now plug your ears because I have to ask Elizabeth Smith the curator question. All these things we’ve been talking about–the family influences, the crafting–do they show up in her art from a curatorial point of view?

ES: I think, as Lee said, everything that happens to you in your life comes out in some way in your work, especially if you work in the kind of way that Lee does, which is very much from her interior and from her imagination, a kind of intuitive way of expressing yourself about things. So, yes, I see it in the work. I think it permeates the whole work in ways that aren’t necessarily really specific.

MT: I understand her not wanting to be labeled and I love the idea that art is art. At the same time, if I had stepped off of Mars and I asked, “Who is this woman?” what would you tell me?

ES: The longer I know the work and the more breadth I see in it, the harder it is to categorize it. What’s so interesting is you can look at this 50-year span and you can see how many movements Lee’s work has been tied to over the years.

MT: Give me a partial list.

ES: Well, for instance, Donald Judd, one of the foremost artists associated with the minimalist movement–also a critic–wrote about her early 60s work. He was linking it to what would be the groundwork for minimalism. So her work has been sort of linked to the emergence of that movement. Even earlier her work was linked with the assemblage tradition and the so-called neo-Dada movement. Her work was then later co-opted by the feminists during the genesis of the feminist art movement. They saw Lee’s work as heroic. They really looked at a lot of the imagery that she used–it was circular, deep crevices–and saw that as a celebration of vaginal imagery in a way that they themselves were thinking about art making. But the work doesn’t really have to do with that either.

It had too much content for minimalism. It was too rich and elusive. It wasn’t about feminist issues or about a woman’s body. When I did the show in the early 90s it was quite fascinating, because that was a time when a lot of artists were working with the body as a site for political and cultural contention, and Lee’s use of canvas and fabric and her bodily references seemed to really strike a chord with that thinking. And [now] I’m hearing a lot of discussion about neosurrealism. People are seeing Lee as a latter-day surrealist. OK, you can see strains of that in the work as well. The beauty of it or the richness of it is that it can be linked to so many different things without being tied directly to any of them.

MT: And she’s also a very generous artist. She says, “Think whatever you want about my piece.”

ES: She doesn’t want to impose. She’s probably most closely allied to the abstract expressionists because she acknowledges when she was a young artist [during] the heyday of the abstract expressionists, she admired not only their work but the idea of freedom and experimentation that their work embodied and the way they lived their lives. They weren’t theorists. They didn’t talk about their work. It was intuitive. She still doesn’t want to really talk about her work. She doesn’t want to fix meaning. She wants to keep it open for people.

MT: Do people ever ask you, “What does this mean?” What do you say?

LB: I don’t answer at all. It’s what you see in it. What I see in it is something else. I don’t get caught up in that.

MT: When did you realize you were an artist? Do you remember?

LB: It wasn’t “Ding! I’m an artist.” In fact, even when I was doing well, I would only say, “I’m a sculptor.” I couldn’t say, “I’m an artist.”

MT: A sculptor isn’t an artist?

LB: Yes it is, but you can be a sculptor and not do art. Your sculpture might be yuck, you know? It just might be mud pie. But you can still say, “I do sculpture.” But when I say “artist” I think of Vincent and the Renaissance and cave painting and I feel very humble when I look at that lineage. Look at Michelangelo. I mean, who can do that?

MT: But you don’t have to say, “I’m Michelangelo.”

LB: No, I know I don’t. [All laugh.] I know I don’t.

MT: You’ve been quoted talking about how politics influenced your work.

LB: If you say there’s two sides of human nature–I don’t know if I’m going to come out with a sentence [here]–but if you say there’s a dark side of us, the underbelly, and then the inspirational things that are in us, I put those two things in. The jets and the planes, which are beautiful, they’re also killers. So it’s political but not that kind of political. We have wars that man can’t seem to stop, and he makes these beautiful things. There was a show at the Met ages ago with some crazy collector. It was a huge show and it was gewgaws and jewelry and it was amazing, but the beautiful things were the daggers with the etchings and the armor, and the rest was–well, it was tasteless. It was awful! [She bursts out laughing.] And when I got out, I just happened to hit a head of an Egyptian bust. It was just, “Ahhh. Thank goodness. I’m out of there.”

MT: Do you see all this in her work?

ES: Yes, I do.

MT: What do you want people to take away from this show?

ES: First of all, I think that they can’t help but take away the incredible range that Lee’s created over almost a 50-year period. Whereas people have tended to think of Lee as an artist so closely associated with the 60s, I think now people are starting to think about her very differently. I especially hear this from so many younger artists who find the work incredibly fresh and compelling, and they marvel at how Lee has made the works, the fact that she’s made everything herself throughout the whole time. There’s a sensibility to the work that excites people, artists as well as the general public, so I hope that’s what people will take away.

LB: Hear, hear.

MT: What do you want them to take away?

LB: Their own thoughts, I guess, and their own feelings about it. Out in LA they were seeing something in themselves and they thanked me for maybe helping them to see something. It was the best. Not “How did you do this?” or “How did you do that?” but just something they had gleaned from themselves. Everybody has a different take on everything. I’ve had people come and say, “I didn’t see that as foreboding. I saw it as something really funny.” That was their view. Something inside their life–I don’t know what it was, but it was good.

The Bontecou show runs through May 30.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.