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Daring and Disturbing

Louise Bourgeois

an exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, June 27–September 28, 2008;the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, October 26, 2008– January 25, 2009;and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.,February 26–May 17
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Frances Morris
Guggenheim Museum, 319 pp., $45.00 (paper)

Louise Bourgeois: Aller-Retour

edited by Gerald Matt and Peter Weiermair
Verlag für moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 216 pp., $50.00 (distributed in the US by DAP)

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 or the top of a penis emerging from foreskin, while in Femme Couteau, a Giacometti-like, smallish marble dated 1969–1970, a headless female form has been given a menacing, dagger-like shape.

At some point in the late 1980s, however, Bourgeois’s work became, one could say, more purely representational. For the first time, she began making assemblages from found objects. Some of these pieces, such as the shimmeringly elegant 1991 Le Défi, which is essentially a collection of different kinds of glass beakers and jugs, set in an electrically lit, open-faced blue cupboard, have the presence of furniture-like sculpture. Most of her assemblages, though, have the size and character of little (and sometimes not so little) rooms, and can be called installation art. Perhaps inspired by these peopleless settings, Bourgeois went on, in the early 1990s, to create sewn fabric pieces of heads and figures, and then, soon thereafter, fairly realistic spiders cast in bronze, one of which is over thirty feet high.

Not all of Bourgeois’s later art is of equal power. But you walk away from it with an immediate, visceral sense that the artist has presented herself fully. Where her earlier sculpture was often threatening in a muffled way, the work since the late 1980s can be dramatically nightmarish. Bourgeois’s spiders, which probably have become, in the relatively short time they have been around, her signature pieces, might be too nightmarish. They hover between being lively sculptural presences and props from a horror movie.

The sewn fabric pieces, though, are genuinely jarring. This is a result, no doubt, of the “deliberate ferocity” of their “bad sewing,” as Linda Nochlin points out in one of the best essays in the show’s accompanying catalog—but also because that bad sewing is of a piece with the innocuous terry cloth and cotton jersey Bourgeois often uses and with her figures’ bulgy, vaguely ill-shapen contours. The faces of her sewn figures can be especially unnerving, their open eye sockets and harshly held mouths revealing more fabric within. Even more disturbing is the 1997 Couple IV, where we encounter, in a glass vitrine, two well-padded, headless, copulating rag dolls, done entirely in black cloth (and about the size of seven-year-olds), one of whom wears an actual prosthesis for a leg.

Absorbing Bourgeois’s examples of installation art, in turn, is like revisiting bad dreams you forgot you had. Appropriately referred to as “cells,” they can contain any number of diverse objects: vintage clothes on hangers, iron beds from earlier eras, mirrors, empty bottles of Shalimar perfume, abstract forms dangling here and there, slightly battered wood chairs and tables, even working lamps. They are usually formed from weathered old doors that have been linked together, giving them, from a distance, a surprisingly sculptural presence and the look of a shed or a seaside cabana plunked down on the gallery floor. Other cells have walls of wire mesh, which impart the sense of a holding pen in a police station. No matter what their architecture, they are imaginable as places in which you might be confined, although, given the ways they allow viewers to peer in, they would leave you feeling vulnerable should you be stuck in one. Like some troubling dreams, they are in part about being sealed off and exposed at the same time.

Yet their insidiousness isn’t what Bourgeois’s cells chiefly leave us with. Like a Joseph Cornell box expanded to walk-in size, her stage sets are collections of disparate items that we instantly understand are about the past and assume can be deciphered, but that engage us because they are such lean, economically assembled objects. Bourgeois does with her old doors what Cornell did with his boxes: she makes the package inseparable from the contents. She creates a kind of theater where the actors are material elements—wood, iron, glass, stone, cloth, electric light—each of which we find ourselves savoring for its own texture.

Bourgeois’s sewn figures, by the same token, for all their demented bodily and facial stiffness, leave most tangibly a sense of the nubby, light-absorbing fabrics they are made from. The highly particular colors she uses for these figures and for the painted objects in her cells—black, white, and, most memorably, pink, red, and sky blue—only enhance the chaste sensuousness of both these kinds of work.

The above estimation of Bourgeois’s later art as her most vibrant and liberated is one she seems to share and the art world certainly shares. Although she has been exhibiting now for nearly sixty years, it is only in the last two decades, prompted no doubt by the work of this time, that publications on her art and life, and major museum exhibitions—in London, Paris, St. Petersburg, Venice, and elsewhere—have proliferated. Even if one has mixed feelings about her sculpture, her swashbuckling openness to change and experimentation, which she has kept up into her nineties, is extraordinary. Her impact has been all the greater in that while she has always been on her own quite individual wavelength, she has not gone off into some zone where she is talking only to herself. If her earlier work stems in part from Brancusi, with his desire to reduce shapes to their essences, and from the early Giacometti, with his feeling for sexual violence and the ominous, her cells and sewn figures of recent years show her to be in sync with such younger and diverse makers of often enigmatic and disorienting installation pieces as the late Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman, Mike Kelley, and Karen Kilimnik.

Getting one’s bearings on Bourgeois’s work, however, is not easy. It is a highly personal bringing together of the psychological, the symbolical, and the formal. It is not exactly a literary or illustrational art. On the contrary, Bourgeois clearly wants to let her work be shaped by the specific physical properties of her materials and the life of forms in themselves. Her feeling for pure form is most evident in her drawings. A number are part of the current show, and they can be seen in greater depth in the catalog of a 2005 exhibition in Vienna called “Louise Bourgeois: Aller-Retour.” From one example to another, we find her making circles, spirals, lozenge shapes, weblike designs, wavy linear patterns, and right-angled constructions. With their unassuming, doodle-like directness and spirit of a folk or self-taught artist happy to keep repeating the same form, these drawings—which sometimes are made up only of words and phrases—form the most immediately inviting aspect of her art.

Yet for Bourgeois (and apparently for most writers who have tackled her work), her sculpture stems from an almost psychotherapeutic need to look at and find ways to embody—and thus to keep at bay, even allay—her ever-pressing fears, anxieties, depression, and anger. To read about her art—and the best place is her Destruction of the Father/Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews, 1923–1997—is to enter a world that is part psychotherapy session and part self-help boot camp. It is also in part a Sunday school, where we are given the underlying and true meanings of her pieces.

In her description, for example, of a marble sculpture from 1985 called She-Fox, of a seated creature with many pendulous breasts, where a girl’s head is seen wedged in near the creature’s hind legs, we find out that the little head represents the girl Louise, here feeling protected by her mother, a formidable and, as the breasts indicate, giving presence. Yet this mother figure also has a slashed throat and is missing a head because, as the sculptor said in an interview, she as a child “did not measure up to this kind of competence and this antagonism, this threatening aspect, exasperated me and pushed me to violence.”

With Bourgeois’s explanations, we learn that the narrow, upright carvings she showed at her first exhibition, in 1949, look as if they might fall over, and that is part of the point. Bourgeois made them (and many other pieces over the years that include possibly unstable vertical elements) in such a way as to reflect both her fears of literally falling down and her belief that somehow she had the strength not to crash. Her spiders, which can seem primarily threatening (and are embodiments of industriousness for the artist, as it turns out), might just as well be making the same point about a fought-for balance. The seemingly shapeless plaster pieces from the 1960s that resemble cocoons or sacks, or can recall piles of noodles coiling around each other, tell yet another symbolic story. They are about a need for a safe, sheltering place, a hideout that will serve during those times when the artist, beset by fears, cannot face the world.

There hardly seems to be a work by Bourgeois that doesn’t stem from some dread or anxiety and represent an alleviation of that dread. Thus while the lovers with the chopped-off heads and a prosthesis in Couple IV can give us the willies, the sculptor might look at it, much the way Diane Arbus apparently looked at the disturbing subjects in her photographs, with a relieved sense of having dispelled an emotion that plagued her.

Bourgeois’s descriptions of the psychic warfare she experiences, combined with the way her elemental and battle-toned view of existence is reinvigorated by realizations about her life, form an arresting whole—especially as one learns about her past. Not that she spends much time, in the substantial volume of her writings and interviews, on her husband, Robert Goldwater, to whom she was married for thirty-five years (until his death, in 1973), or their three sons. Goldwater’s minimal presence (at best) in most of the writing by or about Bourgeois is noteworthy in that, an esteemed art historian and author of the classic Primitivism in Modern Art as well as the first and only director of New York’s Museum of Primitive Art (whose holdings were amalgamated into the Metropolitan Museum), he would seem to have had some bearing on her early, somewhat totem-pole-like pieces at the very least.

But Bourgeois dismisses tribal art as an influence on her, much the way Goldwater is put aside. What she wants to dwell on are the psychological underpinnings of her work and, increasingly from the 1970s and 1980s, her parents and her childhood and youth in France. She returns with such relish to her early family life in the last two thirds of the volume of her writings and interviews that a reader can feel that this realm, peopled by her philandering father, her industrious mother, her siblings, and her English tutor Sadie—who lived for ten years in the Bourgeois household, all the while having an affair with M. Bourgeois—is as palpable as her sculpture.

What makes Bourgeois’s recollections, whether about France or her later life in New York, so energizing is that they are almost always offered as part of a larger point about how she can make use of them in the present. “You have to differentiate between memories,” she says at one point. “Are you going to them or are they coming to you. If you are going to them, you are wasting time. Nostalgia is not productive. If they come to you, they are the seeds for sculpture.”

Perhaps the core of Bourgeois’s sense of her past concerns the tapestry restoration her mother (and her mother’s mother) did for a living. After her father, who had been a landscape architect, married her mother, they opened a gallery to sell these rehabilitated weavings, and M. Bourgeois later added vintage furniture to their inventory. We hear about the properties the family owned, which needed to be by rivers (for the tannin in the water necessary for the job of reworking the wool) and able to accommodate the many workers the business employed; and we see the young Louise, who had a talent for drawing, brought into the family firm with the precise job of making designs for those areas in the tapestries that had been lost over time—designs the weavers followed as they filled in the missing areas. As she goes back and forth over these details, a reader is given a view of a childhood spent in an atmosphere where distinctions between the making of art and the restoration of artifacts—and between an art factory and a kind of rehab—were blurred.

A blurring process has been going on for some years, too, in the way Bourgeois is thought about. When, in the late 1960s and 1970s, her work was beginning to attract younger artists and critics, it was partly because, jumping as she did from one sort of sculptural material to another and also from representation to abstraction, Bourgeois was thought to embody a needed alternative way of thinking about art. It was a time when the idea that modern art was synonymous with a straight and ever more purified path of formal development had come to seem profoundly limiting, even abhorrent, and when feminists and conceptual artists, among others, were determined to bring personal and political realities into contemporary art. Bourgeois was there to say that while her roots were in the modern movement, she had long been indifferent to many of its values. She was hardly, of course, the only artist who was uninvolved with the idea that challenging new art had to follow a single line of progress. Yet few other artists could say so convincingly that their work was based on wherever their unconscious drives took them.

For many of her admirers today, Bourgeois remains a model for how a career can be fashioned from one’s personal needs. This is the thinking, anyway, behind the catalog of the current exhibition. It has been organized as one big glossary, meaning that, with the alphabet as our guide, we find entries on this or that sculpture, thrown in unchronologically with entries on the houses Bourgeois lived in in France, her individual family members, Sadie the tutor, and the artists, art movements, and subjects, such as eyes, prosthetics, spiders, legs, prostitution, and fabrics—and historical figures, such as Brancusi, Le Corbusier, and Sigmund Freud—she has been connected with. Nearly everything is of equal importance, and one reads the handsomely designed volume with a mounting sense of the novelistic richness of Bourgeois’s endeavor as a whole.

As a way of providing a handle on the artist’s development, however, the catalog is hopeless. And the complete intermingling of Bourgeois’s biography and her art, both of which are steeped in her passionate, rueful, perceptive, and sometimes sharp-tongued running commentaries, gives many of her individual sculptures or chosen forms a power on the page that they don’t have on their own—as when in a typically dizzying and disarming passage we hear that:

The spiral is important to me. It is a twist. As a child, after washing the tapestries in the river, I would turn and twist and ring them with three others or more to ring the water out. Later I would dream of getting rid of my father’s mistress. I would do it in my dreams by ringing her neck. The spiral—I love the spiral—represents control and freedom.

There are, of course, formal and thematic unities to Bourgeois’s pieces. She has often said that a leading theme of hers is the relationship of the individual with the group. She has also talked about how she wants as much for a viewer to interact with her work as to admire it as an object set in its own, separate space. In sculptures that span half a century, from the standing figures of her first show, which were placed in the gallery so that the viewer walked among and through them, to works she has done in the past few years, both these concerns are clearly in evidence.

At the Williams College Museum of Art, for example, encountering her outdoor piece from 2001 entitled Eyes, a viewer walks on paths surrounded by different-size mounds of grass-covered earth. On these mounds sit pewter-colored sculptures (in bronze) of eyes, all seemingly staring in different directions; and the experience of them is similar to that of the carvings she showed in 1949. Absorbing Eyes, you can feel you are part of a group even as your sheer differentness from your surroundings is being reinforced.

Bourgeois’s formal and thematic unities, though, are not what give her work its fullest force. If many of her sculptures up until her cells and sewn figures of recent years can leave a dryly symbolic impression, it may be because she needed time to be happier and surer about her identity before tackling what she seems to value most: her childhood and family life. She clearly sees her art as psychotherapy by another name. But certainly in the work that seems to touch her past most directly, her race of fabric people and what might be called her psychic storage bins, she is as much a fabulist as a therapist. That is to say, it is when she adorns her bad dreams, when she gives them some sense of the decorative, the fanciful, and the fable-like, that we most feel her work’s prickly beauty.

  1. *

    It was previously shown at the Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

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