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Angered artist has her say

Lee Bontecou's 11th-hour response to a critic is inserted in her retrospective catalog.

October 04, 2003|Allan M. Jalon | Special to The Times

A bitter controversy has erupted behind the scenes of a much-anticipated retrospective of artist Lee Bontecou at the UCLA Hammer Museum, pitting the artist and her husband against a prominent New York art critic and curator who wrote one of the catalog's five essays -- a dispute over nothing less than the basic meaning and sources of the art that Bontecou has been making in rural seclusion for the last 30 years.

The exhibition, "Lee Bontecou: a Retrospective" is scheduled to open Sunday at the Westwood museum.

In his essay "Seek and Hide," Robert Storr, an artist and former curator of contemporary art at New York's Museum of Modern Art, begins by describing how Bontecou "dropped out of the art world at the height of her fame in the mid-1970s," calling her "a remote and enigmatic figure."

He then goes on to describe the difficulty of writing about someone who was "inaccessible, uncooperative, or has spoken little on his or her own behalf." He chronicles the history of her critical position in the art world. Storr draws wide-ranging connections between Bontecou and many other artists, from Bruce Conner to Robert Rauschenberg, a web of associations that ranges from European painting in the 1940s to American assemblage on the West Coast.

Bontecou, it seems, reacted with a determination to be seen on her own terms. At the 11th hour, the normally reserved artist reportedly objected to the inclusion of the essay in the catalog, but was told it was too late to make changes.

Museum officials said she then asked that exhibition organizers in Chicago and Los Angeles include a special "Artist's Statement" aimed at what she called "inaccuracies and irrelevant contextualizations."

Bontecou's essay -- consisting of a single-page insert in the front of the catalog -- does not directly assail Storr. But her husband, William Giles, issued a statement to the press in which he savagely criticized the critic.

"It is unfortunate that Storr failed to talk with her or view her recent work before drafting his article," Giles says in the statement. "His failure to interview her has resulted in misleading speculations, trumped-up connections to artists she has no connection with, and self-serving hyperbole."

In an interview, Giles broadened his attacks to include the curators at the Hammer and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, which organized the show and the catalog, for "betrayal" of the artist by excluding her collaboration with Storr on the essay. Storr did not respond to several requests for comment. But according to Hal Kugeler, director of publications for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Storr is "devastated" by the controversy. Kugeler said the museum envisioned this as a scholarly essay and was not interested in having Storr contact the artist.

Museum officials in Chicago and Los Angeles said they were delighted with the essay.

The dispute over the catalog entry sheds light on the issue of the sometimes difficult distance between the private world of making art and the public arena in which it is presented.

Bontecou, in Los Angeles for the opening of the retrospective, did not return calls. In her "Artist's Statement," she does not address the specifics of Storr's essay. However, she does write that "over the years and to the present day, there has been so much written about my work that has nothing to do with me that when I read it, I don't recognize anything of myself or my work in it."

She does not address which "inaccuracies" and unsatisfactory contextual arguments in Storr's essay upset her. But her statement suggests that Storr's approach and the critical judgments of the art world in general have overlooked her personal sense of the forces that motivated her. Kugeler said he believed the statement had been developed too late to get in the catalog's hardcover version on sale in bookstores and online. It can be found in the soft-cover catalog in the museum's bookstore.

According to Giles, Bontecou originally had wanted the statement placed opposite Storr's essay, but curators argued for inserting it in the front of the book. With an almost poetic austerity that barely hides the pain of not being seen as she wishes, the artist says: "In the past, when I tried to express my thoughts, eyelids drooped and other agendas were doled out. As a result I stopped trying and spoke only through my work.

"So I am writing this now during my retrospective to put all that to rest, and to express my own voice" about her influences. And what are they?

Greek vases and drawings in the Metropolitan Museum (of Art in New York), fossils at the Museum of Natural History. At the Museum of Modern Art, "just to see a single Brancusi sculpture was enough." The one art world movement she names came in the "most wonderful period of Abstract Expressionism." She mentions artists who range from the well known -- the sculptor John Chamberlain -- to her husband, a painter, and gives the most space to a relatively unknown artist named Doc Groupp, who lived in Venice and died several years ago.

She describes Groupp, whom she met in New York in the 1950s, as "a rough and tough New Yorker who, though his main interests were electronics and aviation, painted the most delicately beautiful and sensitive Oriental landscapes on rice paper and mounted them on scrolls." Groupp's scrolls, Bontecou writes, "still haunt my imagination."

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