February 12, 2004 - Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago - Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective
February 12, 2004

Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective

Lee Bontecou
Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective

14 February – 30 May 2004

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
220 East Chicago Ave.


Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1966. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, gift of Robert B. Mayer Family Collection. 

A legendary American artist returns.

Don’t miss the exhibition the Los Angeles Times calls “a tour de force, mesmerizing and poignant,” and Newsweek describes as “breathtaking . . . as good as it gets.” Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective is an opportunity to see the sculptures and drawings that electrified the art world in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as Bontecou’s extraordinary and strikingly original work of the past thirty years-most of which has never been exhibited.

A Curator’s Journey

Elizabeth Smith, the MCA’s James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator, has followed the career of legendary artist Lee Bontecou for more than a decade. Awed by Bontecou’s work and intrigued by her mysterious disappearance from the art world more than thirty years ago, Smith has spent much of the past ten years deftly choreographing the artist’s return. Thanks to Smith’s tenacious resolve, Lee Bontecou’s much-celebrated art from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s-as well as works from the last three decades, some that has never been shown-is coming to the MCA.

Below, Smith discusses the development of the upcoming exhibition Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective, which opens Saturday, February 14, 2004.

What do you believe explains Lee Bontecou’s thirty-year disappearance from the art world?

After her phenomenal success in the 1960s, she was following a new direction, and it was not what people expected to see- it was not her signature style. I think she felt disappointed that her freedom as an artist wasn’t being appreciated or understood. What has mattered to her more than anything is to be very free-in what she chooses to make and in living her life. So she decided she didn’t want to be part of the museum and gallery scene anymore, and she began instead to devote herself to teaching. As she puts it today, “I just needed a break.”

When did you first begin thinking about an exhibition for Bontecou?

I was intrigued by occasional chance encounters with her early pieces at the Art Institute of Chicago, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MoMA, and other museums, and started researching these works. Bontecou had not had an exhibition since the 1970s-coincidentally, also at the MCA-which stimulated my interest in producing a museum show. I began assembling Lee Bontecou: Sculpture and Drawings of the 1960s for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1993, where I was a curator at the time, but without Lee’s direct involvement. Then something surprising happened. She actually visited the show, and gave it a stamp of approval. We kept in touch, and when I came to Chicago in 1999, Lee invited me to visit her Pennsylvania studio.

What was your response to the work Bontecou has been producing in her studio over the past thirty years?

I found the work very strange and compelling-unlike what any other artist is making. Her new sculpture has an energy to it, vitality, and a power that is different but still somehow related to her earliest pieces. You can’t pinpoint the references it suggests, whether they’re machines or organic life. They’re fantastic hybrids that evoke the sensations of many things.

Do you think Bontecou will disappear again after this exhibition?

No. After the show ten years ago, I discovered that many younger artists, ranging from Charles Ray and Chris Burden to Kiki Smith, Robert Gober, and Sarah Sze, were very excited by her older work. What she was doing really reverberates with a contemporary sensibility, and this has been important for younger artists. As they have learned more about her recent work, their enthusiasm and interest has deepened. Some have said they find it heroic that she would step away after enjoying a very successful career. But she kept making art because she had to-making objects that have an enormous physical and visual presence. Bontecou can no longer be considered simply a historical figure whose work was important in the 1960s. Whether she likes it or not, she is here to stay.

Museum of Contemporary Art

Co-organized by the MCA and the UCLA Hammer Museum, this exhibition will showcase approximately fifty sculptures and seventy-five drawings by Bontecou. It will provide an extraordinary opportunity to view the work of a legendary artist, and her more recent work has created a sensation in the art world.

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
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