June 17, 2010  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
The Imaginative Universe of Lee Bontecou’s Sculpture

Installation view of the exhibition Lee Bontecou: All Freedom in Every Sense, on view at The Museum of Modern Art through August 30, 2010. Photo: Thomas Griesel.

Slowly whirling in space at the center of Lee Bontecou: All Freedom In Every Space, now on view on the fourth floor of the Museum, is a suspended sculpture that the artist created over an eighteen-year period from 1980 to 1998. In this remarkable galaxy of forms, the catalyst for the current exhibition, many of Bontecou’s greatest interests converge—in particular, her longstanding fascinations with outer space, flight, and the natural world.

Sputnik 1.

At the center of this work is a dark blue porcelain orb that resembles a blowfish, octopus, or other primitive sea creature, but also an artificial satellite.  On October 4, 1957, while Bontecou was a Fulbright fellow in Rome, the Russians launched Sputnik into outer space. The  first artificial satellite to successfully orbit the earth, Sputnik ushered in the Space Age and captivated Bontecou (and millions of others) in the process. But while allusions to outer space abound in this airy, galactic sculpture, it seems to suggest the ocean as much as it does the sky and the diminutive forms of insects as much as the unfathomable vastness of the cosmos. Translucent wire mesh throughout the work shimmers like the wings of a dragonfly, and the piano wire that holds the network of shapes in place is as delicate as insect appendages, or even a spider web.

Lee Bontecou. Untitled (detail). 1980–98. Welded steel, porcelain, wire mesh, canvas, wire, and grommets. The Museum of Modern Art. Gift of Philip Johnson (by exchange) and the Nina and Gordon Bunshaft Bequest Fund. © 2010 Lee Bontecou. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

I recently chatted about this work with Alyson Shotz, a contemporary sculptor who has long admired Bontecou’s work. Shotz discovered Bontecou’s work one night in college while stalking the shelves at the Rhode Island School of Design library, where she happened upon a small catalogue of Bontecou’s work. Here’s what she had to say about the suspended sculpture at MoMA: “An ancient and futuristic spaceship, sailing through space on canvas and mesh sails, it seems to offer a shell to live in, to look out from…an eye onto space itself. This sculpture reminds me of a past that might have happened a long time ago and a future I hope to have.”

When this work was installed in Bontecou’s 2004 retrospective at MoMA in our former outpost in Queens, the sculpture was hung high. For this show, I wanted to hang it so that the center of the work would be roughly at eye level, to give visitors the opportunity to appreciate its incredible intricacy up close. One of the fortuitous results of hanging the sculpture lower is that this required a platform on the floor to keep people at a safe distance from the work. Usually platforms are things we reluctantly include in shows and mentally try to imagine away, but in this case, it’s been something to marvel at—the shadows cast by the sculpture dance on the platform almost as if it were a stage, and this effect is just one more layer to the wonderfully imaginative universe Bontecou creates with her art. Thankfully when I took Lee through the installation she immediately commented on how much she liked them.

Watching and hearing people react to this sculpture has been one of the great pleasures of organizing this show. People can’t seem to resist taking pictures of it, and when I give gallery talks on the exhibition, invariably someone asks if it will be put on view at the Museum permanently. What a compliment to Bontecou and this stunning work that I keep getting asked this question!