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Inspiring night of relief

The UCLA Hammer Museum honors Lee Bontecou, who gets to see all her 'friends and enemies' together at last.

October 12, 2003|Ann Conway | Times Staff Writer

While hundreds of art lovers hummed about her, Lee Bontecou sat quietly on a banquette and confessed that she "wasn't used to all of this." Guest of honor at the soiree marking the opening of her retrospective at the UCLA Hammer Museum -- the facility's inaugural "Gala in the Garden" -- the reclusive artist who pioneered the technique of stretching canvas over welded metal armatures to create wall reliefs chose to take her time before mixing with the madding crowd.

After all, this was a night to meet "old friends and enemies," she deadpanned, not referring to the guests, of course, who included billionaire arts philanthropist Eli Broad, UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale, actor Leonard Nimoy and artists Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari, but to the 70 sculptures and 80 drawings lining the museum walls. "I haven't seen the older works for years and haven't seen them all together ever," she said of the exhibit co-organized by the Hammer and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. "They look like they're in good shape, which is nice. I was wondering about that." Bontecou, who lives in rural Pennsylvania, praised the show curated by Elizabeth A.T. Smith "and the book," making no mention of the dissatisfaction that her husband -- who was unable to attend the Oct. 3 gala -- had expressed over a catalog essay by Robert Storr, a prominent New York art critic.

In one of the white-walled galleries, a guest fascinated by a huge rectangular relief featuring two gaping black holes moved in closer, stepped back, then zeroed in again. "Ah! An owl!" he proclaimed. He couldn't have known what Bontecou had in mind when she created the piece in the '60s. Like all her works, it was untitled. "Each person can see what they want," she explained. "The idea was to give you -- and me -- freedom."

After taking in the exhibit, which included some of her newer pieces -- among them complex mobiles evocative of galaxies and outer space -- guests entered a courtyard strung with Japanese lanterns to dine in the moonlight amid a forest of bamboo. "When I was a young art student in the early '70s, Lee Bontecou was my hero," Hammer Director Ann Philbin told the crowd. "She was an inspirational figure to many artists at the time -- her ferocious, beautiful, vulnerable work captured some essential truth about that moment, a time when the Vietnam War raged on and a new awareness of the environment and civil liberties had become a preoccupation for a new generation. Lee's early work provided a powerful metaphor that still resonates today with the same intensity and relevance."

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