Modern Painters | April 2007
By Marie-Laure Bernadac
The photo, everyone knows. Louise Bourgeois, 71 years old, wearing a mischievous grin, with a latex and plaster phallus tucked under her arm like an oversize evening clutch. When Robert Mapplethorpe photographed Bourgeois in 1982 holding her iconic sculpture Fillette (Little Girl, 1968), he captured the artist in a wry, gleeful moment; she appears menacing and aloof on one hand, nurturing and grandmotherly on the other. While the notorious photo is instantly accessible, Bourgeois, for all her renown, remains elusive.
The difficulty in pinning down Bourgeois lies largely in the breadth and variety of her art, an impressive oeuvre encompassing sculpture, drawing, installation, and printmaking. How to make sense of an artist with an exhibition career of 62 years, whose work has ranged from the figurative to the abstract, who displays both vulnerability and threat? Bourgeois’s maverick resistance to categorization often leads her, despite her academic training and sophistication, to be considered on terms otherwise reserved for outsider artists. Marie-Laure Bernadac, chief curator at the Louvre and cocurator of a major upcoming retrospective of Bourgeois’s work, authored Louise Bourgeois, the 18th monograph devoted to the artist. In the book’s lengthy essay, titled “Sculpting Emotion,” Bernadac attempts to intertwine the artist’s well-known biography with changes and developments in her some 74 years of artmaking. For most artists, such an approach might seem dated, and possibly forced, but for Bourgeois it is by now expected. “An ‘anti-biographical’ position cannot be maintained for long in the case of Louise Bourgeois,” Bernadac writes, “because the weight of interpretation linked to childhood memories simply cannot be ignored.” Bernadac largely succeeds in crafting a portrait that parses the various aspects of Bourgeois’s output and takes into account the many interpretations of her work, with a particular emphasis on psychoanalysis.
Part of Bourgeois’s mystique is that she seems to have always been a woman of a certain age—and then some—while her work seems perennially fresh. She began studying art as a young woman in Paris in the 1930s, with Fernand Léger, among others, after briefly taking up mathematics at the Sorbonne. But it was only after arriving in New York in 1938 that she began making art in earnest. By 1947, she was exhibiting her influential totemic wood sculptures, and she found commercial success at Peridot Gallery, where she started showing in 1949; over the next few years, both the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art bought works by her. In the 1960s Bourgeois began using suppler materials, like plaster and latex, which led to a pivotal moment in her career: her selection for the 1966 exhibition “Eccentric Abstraction,” curated by Lucy Lippard. The show, mounted at Fischbach Gallery in New York, charted an alternative trajectory to Minimalism, emphasizing sculpture that was soft and biomorphic. At 55, Bourgeois was the oldest artist Lippard chose for a lineup that included Bruce Nauman and Eva Hesse; her appearance in “Eccentric Abstraction” helped establish her as an elder stateswoman who pioneered the way for artists—particularly women artists—to deal openly with sexuality and domestic issues. Bourgeois’s work of the time included nestlike “lairs,” for example Fée couturière (Tailor Bird, 1963), a teardrop-shaped form punctured by several openings that hung from the ceiling. These prefigured her later, large-scale narrative works that use jail-like cages, as well as abstract sculptures that suggest parts of the body, such as Fillette and the stunning Sleep II (1967), a marble piece that resembles a flaccid, retreating phallus resting on a rough wood base.
In the 1970s Bourgeois’s work took a personal turn, focusing more directly on the darker aspects of family dynamics, particularly those relating to her own experience. Of the “childhood memories” Bernadac refers to, the most striking is Bourgeois’s father’s affair with the family’s English governess. To Bourgeois’s lasting horror, her father brought the young woman into the family as his mistress, and she lived with them for 10 years. (Bourgeois’s move to New York, and “break” from her father, is often credited as a liberating force for her art.) In 1974, when the artist was 63 years old, she manifested her anger in the bluntly titled The Destruction of the Father. Bulbous forms cast in latex are suspended from the ceiling and rise from a table. Lit by a red light, the installation “evokes the inside of a mouth,” in Bernadac’s words, and she notes the theme of cannibalism and domestic life as a thread throughout Bourgeois’s work. It’s tempting and not altogether wrong to give in to Bernadac’s characterization of Bourgeois as a frustrated housewife. Although she clearly loved her husband and children, she seems to have chafed at the familial caretaker role she was expected to assume on top of being a full-time artist. Bourgeois made The Destruction of the Father a year after the death of her husband, art historian Robert Goldwater, and according to Bernadac it related not only to Bourgeois père: “It is probably no coincidence that Bourgeois produced this violent piece shortly after the death of her husband; just as she threw out the domestic stove (the symbolic tool for feeding the family) thereby freeing herself from the attributes of mother and wife.” Her most widely recognized sculptures are the spiders that first appeared in the mid-’90s, which the artist associates with both weaving (her parents ran an antique tapestry repair workshop) and her mother (“my mother . . . was [as] clever, patient, neat, and useful as a spider. She could also defend herself.”). The spiders stand as archetypal works of Bourgeois’s career. Despite her affectionate description, the spiders are less comforting than creepy, and their ability to fascinate balances attraction and repulsion, obviousness and ambiguity.
As Bernadac nears the present day, it’s surprising and a little discomfiting how easily she ties together the various threads of Bourgeois’s life and art. Swaddled in psychoanalytic theory, Bernadac claims that, once Bourgeois had exorcised childhood traumas by representing both her mother and father through art, she was able to “confront the ‘primal scene’ by depicting her parents’ bedroom” in the piece Red Room (Parents, 1994). It does seem plausible that the artist would return to this moment as she nears her 90th year, but when Bernadac decrees, “Things have come full circle,” it’s hard not to cringe. Still, one can appreciate her efforts to circumscribe an artist who, no matter how many childhood anecdotes she provides, manages to evade all attempts at doing so.
Robert Mapplethorpe, photograph of Louise Bourgeois, 1982