After we’re done shaking our heads at what they had to endure, we project onto our long-lived women artists a mystique that’s as old as history—that of the sorceress or the good witch. These women have a secret. We want them to tell us everything, but maybe they don’t want to. If we can gain access to their magical workshop, squeezing through a narrow corridor to find the door, we might be privy to some important mysteries. The veils will be unwound, and finally we will look life in the face and weep for all that was lost to get us here.
In her long life, Louise Bourgeois experienced both extremes of the female artist story—marginalization, even invisibility early on, and decades later a fierce and passionate following by younger artists and curators. Her status was based on an independence from fashion, and on calling attention to emotions that most people prefer to keep hidden: shame, disgust, fear of abandonment, jealousy, anger. Occasionally, joy or wonder would surface, like a break in the clouds. But Bourgeois was an artist, not a therapist. Her imagination was tied to forms, and how to make them expressive. Her gift was to represent inchoate and hard-to-grasp feelings in ways that seem direct and unfiltered.
Deborah Wye, the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator emerita of prints and illustrated books, has put together an elegant and revealing exhibition of Bourgeois’s graphic work, prints, and printed books—some 265 images, made with a wide variety of techniques, all from the museum’s extensive holdings, along with related drawings, early paintings, and a small selection of sculptures that show their reciprocity with the drawn forms. Wye, who organized the first Bourgeois retrospective at MoMA in 1982, as well as a survey of Bourgeois’s drawings in 1994, has devoted much of her professional life to the artist and knew her well, and this show must be something of a victory lap for her.
On first impression, the books and other works on paper seen against the museum’s dove-gray or Venetian red walls are absorbing; they pull you in. But to call it a print show would be a little misleading. Bourgeois was forever altering her work, making additions and adjustments to printing proofs as they occurred to her in the moment, and the majority of the prints in the exhibition exist in several different states, or stages of development. They are often added to, painted, or drawn on—sometimes just a dot of color, other times reimagined completely. What we are really looking at are paintings on paper, which take as their starting point a printed image as a first layer.
Over the course of her marathon career, Bourgeois worked in a wide range of mediums and formats, from engravings just five inches tall to…
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