WESTWOOD, CALIF. — Lee Bontecou is back. If you are under say, 40 or so - even if you are a serious art enthusiast - you can be forgiven for responding, "Who?"
But this sculptor, one of the few women artists to receive major recognition in the 1960s, has returned with the first major retrospective of her work in 30 years, and there's no other word for it: The art world is giddy.
"In all the years I've been working in this field, I've never experienced such anticipation and excitement," says Ann Philbin, director of the UCLA Hammer Museum, where the exhibition of some 70 sculptures and 80 drawings opened this week.
Part of that excitement stems from the fact that Ms. Bontecou, after building up a flourishing art career, simply walked away from it in the 1970s. But the rest has to do with the art on display, say both artists and critics, who have been tripping over themselves in their search for superlatives to describe the show.
"For the first time in a decade, I was speechless," says Robert Fitzpatrick, director of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). "The works are just stunning. [With this show], I discovered what a spectacular artist she really is."
As an indication of the level of interest, after Los Angeles, the installation (a collaboration between the three national institutions) travels first to Chicago's MCA and on to New York's Museum of Modern Art for the summer. The show opens with the metal and canvas sculptures that gained Bontecou her early prominence.
MCA curator Elizabeth Smith, who is largely responsible for helping to lure Bontecou out of her "retirement" from the national art scene, says these works reflect the materials and themes that Bontecou has continued to explore throughout her work to the present day.
"She has a frank intermingling of organic and machine references that is always compelling," says Ms. Smith. She points out that Bontecou was interested in technology from her earliest days, when she used to go to the local airport to watch planes take off and land. Also obvious from the dark, almost sinister, looming forms: a serious undertone of gloom about the relationship between man and nature.
All these themes still resonate with Bontecou today. But as the years have gone by, she says, her tone has lightened up a bit. "I'm pessimistic about humanity," she says, her surprisingly diminutive figure perched on a large couch on a patio adjoining the museum. "But I'm optimistic about the individual."
This shift is apparent in the use of more transparent materials, from marine-like see-through plastic sculptures to the increasingly airy sculptures that look like complex galaxies from outer space. Almost none of this later work has ever been on display outside Bontecou's studio barn in rural Pennsylvania.
But, says Mr. Fitzpatrick, her evolution as an artist has lost none of the vigor and freshness that made her such a hit decades ago. This is remarkable in and of itself. "I don't know of any other artist whose work has stayed so original, so pure, in such isolation," he says. "She's a major, major artist, and that's what people will discover with this show."
Almost as an aside, Bontecou explains why she withdrew from the art world. "I got tired of talking about my work all the time," she says with a diffident shrug. During her time away, she and her husband, artist William Giles, raised a daughter, Valerie, who is with her for the show's opening. (She has been influenced by her mother, Valerie says with a shy smile - she studies insects at the National Museum of History. Her mom glances at her hopefully and adds, "She draws beautifully.") Bontecou also taught art for 20 years at Brooklyn College.
Years spent in private pursuit also have clarified the artistic process for Bontecou. She says she was never intimidated as a sculptor by the fact that she was a woman. "I was just always interested in materials and their properties. I probably should have been a physicist," she says with a sigh, but adds brightly, "but then I wouldn't have tried to weld things that should never have been welded, like cast iron."
She makes no apologies for the detour, saying that she never felt lacking in stimulation. In fact, she adds with a laugh, "I always had my students' work to look at, and frankly, a lot of that was better than the things I'd see occasionally in those Soho boutique galleries."
She says she never tried to influence her students. She herself owns up to few influences of her own, other than Mother Nature and her own powers of observation. Rather, what she emphasized with her students was the importance of passion. "I wanted them to have their own loves, their own ideas," she says. "The artistic life is not a career, you know," she says, again with a disarming simplicity. "You simply have no choice about it. That's what I tried to bring out in my students."
She says girls would often fall by the wayside more quickly than the boys. "They'd break a nail or something, and that would slow them down." But others would discover what she hoped they would. "It should be a passion they can't escape," she says, adding, "it's a dangerous life, but it was my salvation."