The exhibit begins with the three-dimensional works that made Lee Bontecou famous in the 1960s — canvas stretched over welded metal frames, usually containing mysterious black voids, that evoke both painting and sculpture.
It ends with the now 72-year-old artist’s most recent works — suspended porcelain and wire sculptures, suggesting galaxies, helicopters, insects or spacecraft modeled on 19th-century sailing ships.
The first are large, rough and often menacing, in colors of black, khaki and gray. The latter are delicate and extremely intricate, their fabric in shimmering jewel tones. Yet both bodies of work illustrate a mysterious character based on forms found in nature.
“Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective,” which opens Saturday at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, is the first exhibit in which Bontecou’s later works have been available for public comparison to her earlier pieces. It has appeared at the UCLA Hammer Museum and will move to the Museum of Modern Art in New York this summer.
Bontecou was a young star in the art scene of the 1960s. Her name was mentioned along with Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns. But she chose to withdraw from the gallery and museum scene in the early 1970s, eventually settling on a Pennsylvania farm with her husband and now-grown daughter.
Since her last solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in 1971, little of her subsequent work has been seen, though not for lack of trying by gallery owners and museum curators.
She was convinced of the need for a retrospective by a bout with ill health several years ago — she didn’t want to burden her husband or daughter with all her work — and through the persistence of Elizabeth A.T. Smith, chief curator at the MCA.
The retrospective features about 70 sculptures and 80 drawings from private and public collections along with Bontecou’s own holdings. Even Bontecou says she was amazed to see so many of her works, arranged chronologically from 1957 to 2001, in the tall, airy galleries of the MCA.
“It’s like going through therapy,” Bontecou, a tiny woman with short gray hair, said in an interview two days before the exhibit opened. “Like seeing friends and enemies — some I had real fights with.”
While Bontecou withdrew from the glare of the art scene, she did not become a hermit. She taught college art and said that not having to deal with deadlines or publicity freed her to experiment with her art. Some of her pieces, she said, she developed on and off for 10 years.
“It took a while, and it made it better because I could solve problems sometimes without even bothering myself. A little time would go by and I’d say, ’Oh yeah, of course, this is fine,’ or ’No, I have to take that out,”’ Bontecou said.
No titlesThe exhibit opens with some of Bontecou’s earliest works, bronze and cement sculptures of abstract animal forms, before moving on to the pieces that attracted the attention of the art world — huge wall reliefs in which she stitched canvas using tiny wires to a metal frame she welded herself.
These pieces have been interpreted as alluding to sexuality, violence, war and machines — expressing both awe at the engineering feats of humans and despair at the destruction those inventions can cause.
Items found at military surplus stores are often incorporated into the pieces. Zippers or hooks make grinning or grimacing mouth shapes, while circular openings pull the viewer’s attention into a black void intended to represent mystery or hope.
After the birth of her daughter in the late 1960s, the style and intensity of Bontecou’s work shifted to gentler colors and forms. Her drawings feature waves and flowers, and her wall reliefs now include shell shapes; one wall piece lighted from behind resembles stained glass.
The exhibit’s final section showcases Bontecou’s welded steel mobiles. They are as delicate as her earlier works were rough but they again employ her technique of using tiny pieces of copper wire to bind the fabric to the frame.
Throughout the exhibit is an examination of Bontecou’s constant search for new materials. Besides using objects like canvas from laundry bags, metal bolts and rope, she experimented with plastic, epoxy and other synthetic materials.
One section details Bontecou’s colorful fish and flower sculptures made from a complicated process involving plastic foam. In a nod to her worries about the environment, one of the flowers wears a gas mask.
Very few artists crave labels, and Lee Bontecou is more strident than most. She hates being boxed into any category.
“Like every artist,” she said, “you have as much freedom as you can.”
That desire for freedom applies to her works as well. Bontecou doesn’t like to talk about the “meaning” behind a piece, and almost all of her works are untitled. Instead, she wants viewers to arrive at their own impressions.
Still, she admits that she was once tempted to add titles, because keeping track of an almost 50-year-old body of work without labels can get complicated.
“I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it — make a title,” she said. “I’d be putting my take on something. It’s got to be open ended.”
“Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective” will run through May 30 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, then travel to the Museum of Modern Art in New York from July 30 to Sept. 27.