Lee Bontecou: Drawn Worlds is the first retrospective exhibition of the drawings of American artist Lee Bontecou (b. 1931). The selection spans more than five decades of Bontecou’s career; works date from the late 1950s—when she began her innovative works on paper with welding torch and soot as a drawing tool and medium while studying in Rome as a Fulbright Scholar—to the ongoing efforts underway now in her Pennsylvania studio. Like her sculptures, Bontecou’s drawings highlight the ingenuity and bravura of her experiments with materials and ways of creating and making spatial form.
For the post-World War II generation, the 1950s and 1960s were decades of enormous contrasts. The exploration of space took place in the shadow of the Bomb, the Holocaust and the toll the war took on humanity and the environment. Concerns about our natural habitat as a place to be restored, conserved, and kept hospitable were joined by rising anxieties about the repercussions of technological and scientific progress and the Cold War.
Responding to these circumstances, Bontecou’s drawings reflect on the human-made and natural environments as twinned frameworks. She employs a variety of pencils, soots, inks, brushes, and colors to sketch or draw a wide array of imagery: vestiges and semblances of airplanes, sails, teeth, eyes, guns, black holes, and imprisoning bars take their places alongside seashells, birds, insects, flowers, ocean waves, landscapes, and horizon lines. Mixing menace, strangeness, and marvel, Bontecou’s drawings invite meditation on how our present must be continually reimagined and respectfully re-created in response to the perils, advances, and conundrums of the contemporary moment.
Introduced in this exhibition and document is a group of drawings and an early sketchbook from the late 1950s which have never before been exhibited, and were chosen by the artist for this special occasion. Bontecou has additionally selected an important recent sculpture to accompany the works on paper to further illustrate the inseparable connection between drawing and sculpture in her oeuvre.
Lee Bontecou: Drawn Worlds, is curated by Michelle White for the Menil Collection, and the fully illustrated catalogue includes new essays and an up-to-date chronology focusing on the context of her drawing.
Photos: Paul Hester