Guggenheim Museum, 319 pp., $45.00 (paper)
Perhaps the most amazing of the many remarkable aspects of Louise Bourgeois is that if she had died in her middle seventies we would not have known how daring, strange, ambitious, or disturbing an artist she could be. We would not have known how lively a colorist this ninety-six-year-old sculptor is capable of being; and we would have been deprived of the full measure of one of the loveliest aspects of her art, her feeling for a range of weathered, frayed, and matte textures. Bourgeois of course is not especially renowned for the sensuous qualities of her work, let alone qualities connected with the word “lovely.” The artist, who was born in France in 1911 and has lived in New York since 1938 (when she arrived here to be the wife of the American art historian Robert Goldwater, whom she had met in Paris), has long been recognized for her adventurousness with diverse sculptural materials. She is probably best known, though, for the way her pieces, which for most of her career have blended abstract and representational elements, exude a note of something ambiguous and hidden—and frequently sexual and sinister.
For viewers not already versed in her themes and the symbolic interpretations associated with her art, much of Bourgeois’s earlier work may also come across as simply mystifying, if not inert. At the artist’s current traveling retrospective, recently at the Guggenheim Museum and soon to be exhibited in Los Angeles, we are presented with sculpture, dating from the late 1940s, in wood, bronze, marble, plaster, and such materials as plastic, wax, and hemp. The story these pieces tell is a kind of psychic pilgrim’s progress. We follow the development of someone who, believing that her fears represent her deepest truths, slowly and bumpily develops a greater degree of self-confidence—which may explain why her art becomes clearer and freer over time. Some of Bourgeois’s earliest pieces, as it happens, are charming and witty. They are narrow, upright, sparingly painted wood carvings that resemble figures and appear to be a synthesis of tribal art and characters observed at a cocktail party. Almost as engaging are a number of more purely abstract, painted wood pieces from the early 1950s, which are like sentinels or prototypes for garden statuary.
But then color—literally and emotionally—largely disappears from Bourgeois’s sculpture, and for much of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, her art, at least as it is represented in the present show, seems to be so many starts and stops. In works that resemble cocoons or congregating bulbous forms, Bourgeois was no doubt exploring states of feeling, but the result seems to be little more than, in the first instance, lumpen shapelessness or, in the second, a too prettily coordinated movement of groups of things. When she turned her attention to sexuality, her art became less mysterious but these works can be unrefreshingly coy. In many sculptures we aren’t sure whether we are looking at a clitoris …