This Artist Plays Real Good For Free.

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‘Lee Bontecou was a major artist. Then she decided she didn’t need the art world.’ So begins a must-read, fascinating essay by Calvin Tomkins in the August 4, 2003, New Yorker, an essay that underscores the nature of a true artist.

The artist’s true nature is to ‘play real good for free.’ Commercial and critical success may pose a grave danger for the artist and few continue to create great art once they achieve either or both. It would be difficult to improve on Joni Mitchell’s lyrical exploration of this theme in “For Free.”

I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels
The wind rushed around in the dirty town
And the children let out from the schools
I was standing on a noisy corner
Waiting for the walking green
Across the street he stood
And he played real good
On his clarinet, for free.
Now me I play for fortune
And those velvet curtain calls
I’ve got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free.
Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their T.V.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony…
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free. ‚©1970 Joni Mitchell

In 1960 “Art in America” called Lee Bontecou the “find of the year,” and in 1965, Donald Judd, a critic who would soon himself become a major artist, called her “one of the best artists working anywhere.” Then suddenly she inexplicably disappeared and nobody seemed to know where she had gone.

Bontecou, we learn, married artist Bill Giles (¢â‚¬Ëœa man who had fallen into art mainly because he liked to draw and couldn’t stand to be around any form of authority’), had a baby and became deeply invested in being a mom. She also chose the path of artistic freedom, dodging the bullet that slays artists whose production becomes driven by external demands instead of inner calling. Her insights into her journey are instructive.

“I needed a rest. I wanted to explore and expand. I just didn’t want to have to make things, and finish things, and show them every two years.”

“Being an artist is not a career. It’s just something that grabs you. You can’t say ¢â‚¬ËœI’m going to be an artist’ because you have a little talent. I think that’s the problem. I think maybe that’s why there are so many of them.”

She supported herself by teaching art at Brooklyn College to students unaware of her reputation. She said of the experience, “I loved the students, but for me teaching was a way to get out of the art world.”

Bill Giles, her husband, sees it this way, “Lee’s life is seamless. Gardening, making sculpture, cooking dinner it’s all part of the same process.”

During this same period of time Bontecou said to Ann Philbin, “I’ve never left the art world. I’m in the real art world.”

Bontecou continued making extraordinary art, and after all these years other people will be able to see it in a retrospective of her work, first at the U.C.L.A. Hammer Museum, then in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art and then at New York’s MOMA.

The woman who “didn’t go to art-world parties, and was less and less interested in what other artists are doing,” remains centered saying, “It’s a very lovely thing to be happening, but I can’t get excited about it, and I really hate all the details that go into a big show.”

As for her concern about what critics might say of her work? Calvin Tomkins reminds us of what Barnett Newman, a revered Abstract Expressionist once said about art-critical discourse: “Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.”

And so there you have it. A major artist decided she didn’t need the art world and continued making real good art for free.

Artists can learn a lot from Bontecou. There are a multitide of motivations for creating art: communicating with an audience, fame, money, critical praise. Bontecou recognized that art at its most basic can truly be created for an audience of one; for the Culturally Savvy Christian artist, that one is God.

‚© CRS Communications, Dick Staub 2003

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