Lee Bontecou (1931–2022)

Lee Bontecou in her Wooster Street studio, 1963. Photo: © Ugo Mulas.

IN THE SPRING OF 1964, I attended a ballet in the newly opened New York State Theater. There was a sizeable horizontal sculpture (twenty-one feet wide, by about six feet high) mounted on the wall in the alcove behind the double stairways going up to the auditorium. It was striking and I looked for the artist’s name—Lee Bontecou—which I had not heard (but I was still new to the art world). The presence of the (Untitled) work was an uncanny combination of the mechanical and the avian, with an evanescent hint of menace.

Two months later, toward the end of June, I took the train from New York out to West Islip, Long Island, on my first day of employment at Tatyana (Tanya) Grosman’s lithography studio, Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), as her secretary. Tanya wanted a young poet for the job, à la Rilke and Rodin, and Frank O’Hara, whom she greatly respected, had recommended me. That morning, when I crossed the front yard to enter the modest house, I passed the equally modest studio; the doors were open and, just outside of them, a young woman was drawing on a very large lithographic stone that had been set on a dolly. I was told it was Lee Bontecou.

It was not permitted to talk to an artist who was working, of course, but everyone ate lunch together in the kitchen, and the atmosphere and conversation there was relaxed and informal. I don’t imagine that I was the first person to notice the contrast between the strange and daunting aura Lee’s work could have and her personality. She was down to earth, unaffected, and easy to talk to. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as natural as Lee was, so without pretense (and without much patience when faced with it in others), and with an ironclad sense of what was right and just. This forthrightness was combined with a depth of feeling and an absolute commitment to her art. Lee designated all of her pieces Untitled because, as she once told me in an interview, “That would be like making you think my way, binding you.”

Our beautifully printed and produced collaborative portfolio/book, Fifth Stone, Sixth Stone (1968) had a third, essential collaborator—Tanya Grosman—who was responsible for bringing it into existence. Fifth Stone was the lithograph finished shortly before I showed up at ULAE; Sixth Stone was what she was working on the day that I did.

Soon after I started work, Tanya wanted me to take notes on these first lithographs that I was exposed to, for “some not clearly defined future project,” to quote myself from the Bontecou interview, and they were eventually published as a booklet. In 1967 ULAE had built an etching studio to go with the lithographic operations, and Tanya suggested to Lee that she explore that medium by doing some etchings reminiscent of the lithographs I had made notes on. She made six etching-and-aquatints, which were printed en face to my now greatly pared-down text. Tanya suggested that I write a poem (it appears below) to “finish” the whole, and Lee made a soft-ground etching for the cover that was printed on the kind of muslin she often used for drawings. Tanya hired a photographer to record the signing.

Lee and I never saw each other socially—except once in a while at openings—but only at ULAE, which eventually were semi-social occasions, after we got to know each other, and we had a rapport from the very beginning. But those times added up, and when I last talked to Lee, at her exhibition at MoMA QNS in 2004, I felt the pleasure of seeing an old friend, and I believe she felt the same.


“Poem for Bontecou Etchings” (1968)


All the while the green and white of our sentiment


drifts on the sea,


or as an element of the earth


is with the oil born a million years ago


which we bring up with endless minerals.


Around the room is the lake, the sun


lifting the vacant hand


and everything is in you,


the breeze of a September hitting your throat,


incompetent personnel bathing your thoughts,


and animals useful as food or pets,


their ancient power looking on from a height or a distance,


teeth from the sky and from the ground closing


after the length of time which is truly yours.


Tony Towle is a poet living in New York City.