Mothers of Invention: Louise Bourgeois
Four separate posts are brought together here. Scroll to see them all
Newest: Louise Bourgeois, Freud's Daughter. It's posted after Spider Woman. Scroll down
Retrospective at the Guggenheim, June 27-September 28, 2008
Originally posted August 30, 2008
In the classic Mapplethorpe image of Louise Bourgeois, the artist is holding a giant plaster-and-latex penis under her arm like a baguette. The irony is that if she had an actual penis, if she were Louis Bourgeois, she’d be bigger than Picasso. Bourgeois is an immense talent who has been making art for over 70 years. Her arc spans Surrealism, Modernism, Post-Minimalism, Feminism and Installation Art, and her oeuvre—essentially organic and increasingly narrative—includes work in wood, stone, metal, wax, resin, fabric and found (or chosen) objects.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Louise Bourgeois in 1982 with Fillette (1968, latex over plaster)
Given the penile propensities of the art world, Bourgeois was ignored in the early years of her career while her male contemporaries went on to acclaim and success. But championed by the feminists of the New York art world in the 1970s, and then embraced by such curatorial powerhouses as Robert Storr, she became well known as she entered her seventies. She’s the most contemporary near-centenarian, and certainly the most productive, we have ever seen. (And her late-in-life fame makes her something of a patron saint for midcareer artists who have yet to receive their own recognition.)
Like Picasso, she has embraced and mastered a staggering number of mediums, each in service to a wide-ranging vision. But where Picasso’s work was about suffering on a large scale (Guernica) and sex at an intimate level (just about everything else), Bourgeois’s art is about personal pain and a sexuality that is less about personal intimacy and more about eroticism on a grand scale.
Installation view of Spider Couple, Untitled, and Untitled at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008; © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation New York. Photo: David Heald
Bourgeois's cast aluminaum spirals suspended from the oculus
The exhibition starts with her earliest work on the lower level, and as you move up the ramp, the work gets more autobiographical, so it helps to know a few facts about Louise Bourgeois:
. She was born in 1911 in Paris
. Her mother was a tapestry weaver
. Her parents ran a tapestry repair business out of their large home in the provincial town of
Choisy, south of Paris
. The child Louise would help out when small hands were required
. Pere carried on with the live-in nanny under the roof of the home he shared with his family
. She has been angry at him all these years for what she sees as a betrayal of herself and her
mother, and the pain of that betrayal has been something of a muse
. She visited Brancusi's studio when she was a girl. Here's part of the "Brancusi" entry in the
catalog: "His room was full of wood beams, and I can tell you where he got them. The big boats
would come from Dakaar, Africa, and those beams were the ballast. . . The beams were often
left on the banks of the River Seine."
. She studied art in Paris from 1933-1938;Fernand Leger was one of her teachers
. She married the American art historian Robert Goldwater in Paris in 1938 and moved with him
that year to New York City
. She raised three sons and made art in domestic spaces, working in the basement and storing
her art in the dumbwaiter of her Chelsea brownstone
. Some early work, which consists of scraps of wood, was made on the roof of her building, which
the artist used as a studio. Indeed, bits of cedar from an old water tower are incorporated into
that early work
. Her first solo, of 12 paintings, show took place in New York City in 1945
. "Until the late 1970s, offers of exhibitons were few and far between," writes Frances Morris in
the opening essay to the catalog that accompanies the show. She was embraced by the feminist
artists of that period, after which, notes Robert Storr, she became more vocal about the specific
source of her pain
. She moved into a large studio in Brooklyn in 1980, which allowed her work to get larger
. Her longtime studio assistant (30 years and counting) is Jerry Gorovoy, himself an artist
. In 1982 MoMA gave her a retrospective
. She's represented by Cheim & Read in New York City, where her work is regularly exhibited in
solo and thematic group shows, and at the various international art fairs
. Her work is in collections at major museums internationally
. If the films about her are any indication, she's ornery and impatient. At the same time, the
legendary Sunday Salons at her Chelsea brownstown are a model of generosity to artists
. She’s 97 and still at it. Indeed you can sometimes walk by that brownstone on 20th Street,
between 8th and 9th Avenues and see her, through the window, working at a table in the front
room [2021 update: Bourgeois died at 99 in 2010]
Let’s walk up the ramp, shall we?
Femme Maison, 1947, ink on paper, 36 x 14 inches
Above and below, installation view of Personages at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008© Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation New York
Photos: David Heald
Below, in the far corner, The Blind Leading the Blind
Louise Bourgeois, The Blind Leading the Blind, 1947-1949, painted wood; 70 3/8 x 96 7/8 x 17 3/8 inches
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
© Louise Bourgeois. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum
Installation view of "Louise Bourgeois" at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008; © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation New York. Photo: David Heald
Below: The artist with Femme Volage (the sculpture above that's farthest away on the ramp) The photograph, from the Louise Bourgeois Archive, is from the mid-1960s. The work, 1951, is in the collection of the Guggenheim
The sculptures from the series directly above were made when Bourgeois used the roof of her building as an alfresco studio. She incorporated scraps of the wood she found up there, including castoff cedar shingles from the water tower, towers being a feature of most New York City buildings, which she painted. I love these works for their scale and materiality, and for their straightforward construction: strung like beads, except vertically on a metal or wood spindle.
The Blind Leading the Blind, the most minimalist of the work from this period, is one of my favorites. (It is not stacked but the construction is also straightforward.) There are other sculptures, totemic stacks of geometric shapes, that I love equally, but the Guggenheim did not include them as part of their press materials, and no photography was allowed (I tried).
Cumul I, 1968, marble, wood plinth, 20 1/16 x 50 x 48 1/16 inches. Attribution au Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris. © Louise Bourgeois, courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum
Below: Louise Bourgeois in 1990 with her marble sculpture Eye to Eye, 1970. Photo: Raimon Ramis, © Louise Bourgeois, courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum
As we walk up the ramp, the shapes become more biomorphic. Materials are marble and metal, as well as latex. Travel and politics were most certainly an influence on her work. Bourgeois took her first trip to the quarries in Pietrasanta, Italy, in 1967-68. Her biomorphic work became more overtly sexual as she aligned more closely with the Women's Movement in the 1970s.
Arch of Hysteria, 1993, bronze, lifesize. Image taken from Internet
Two installation shots: with the hanging spirals above, and with a view of Bourgeois's cells and fabric sculptures below. Both images courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum
Bourgeois in her Chelsea home with the same three pink cloth figures visible on the upper left ramp of the installation image above
Cell (Choisy), 1990-1993, pink marble, metal and glass; 120 1/2 x 67 x 95 inches. Although VCell is in the exhibition, the photo from the internet is from a different venue
Red Room (Child), 1994, mixed media, 83 x 139 x 108 inches. Photo: Marcus Schneider, © Louise Bourgeois, courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum
Red Room (Child) is dreamlike and surreal, with fact and metaphor interwoven in ways that are entirely known only to the artist. The two pairs of hands on the pedestal in the center of the image are carved from red casting wax, as are what appear to be viscera at the right of the frame. Hands and fingers are, of course, intimately involved with warp and weft, the manipulation of which was the family business. But given the artist’s pain at her father’s affair, those hands suggest not just work but a tender touch and its absence. Red is blood, life, heart, love, heartbreak. Those cones and spools of thread simply reinforce that tangled emotional web.
Louise Bourgeois, Freud's Daughter
At the Jewish Museum, May 21-September 12, 2021
Published June 27, 2021
Louise Bourgeois had a lot of demons. Artmaking was her therapy. She was famously angry at her father for carrying on an affair with the nanny in the family home. And she was angry at her mother for allowing it to happen. Papa wasn’t giving them enough love. After she married an art historian and moved with him to New York City, he had the airy third floor of their townhouse for his office while she made do with the basement or the roof for her studio. I’d be angry about that.
Louise Bourgeois, Freud’s Daughter looks at the artist’s words and work in relation to her Freudian analysis. The curator, Philip Larratt-Smith, and coordinator, Shira Backer, selected sculptures, installations, prints, and pages from her hotebooks that offer a lot for consideration. Let me take you through the show. Images provided by the museum are so identified. The others are mine.
Loose sheet of writing, c. 1961
Handwritten in pencil on ruled paper. (LB-0019). © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Conscious and Unconscious, 2008; fabric, rubber, thread, and stainless steel. Collection The Easton Foundation
Photo by Ron Amstutz, © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Here's some wall text about the piece: "Louise Bourgeois . . . maintained that she enjoyed direct access to the unconscious via two avenues—the making of a sculpture and the encounter with the other—both of which involved her body. The resistances that manifest themselves during analysis are analogoius to the resistance of the material with which she worked as a sculptor. More crucially, the sculptural process activated a link between her aggressivity and her lilbido. As the artist stated, "Violence is required for the making of a new order.
"The Freudian dictum holds that where the Id was, there Ego shall be. In Bourgeois's terms, the successful realization of a sculpture functions to make conscious what was previously unconscious—that is, repressed and inaccessible—and discharge unwelcome or unmanageable instinctual impulses. Her symbolic forms, like the symptoms of the neurotic, are compromise formations between a wish and a defense.
"Conscious and Unconscious is one of four large-format wooden vitrines Bourgeois made in the last five years of her life. On the left, five spools of thread of different color are linked to a hanging teardrop, which has been cast in blue rubber. The delicate threads symbolize the the timeless of the unconscious. The number five in Bourgeois's work represents the family: She was the middle daughter in a family of five in Paris, and she and her husband had three sons in New York. The stacked fabric progression on the right is an image of rational order and constructive activity and hence of the conscious mind."
View into vitrine
Photo by Ron Amstutz, © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
View inside the vitrine with the three-headed Hysterical, 2001; fabric, stainless steel, glass, wood, and lead
More from the vitrine
With Conscious and Unconscious in the gallery behind us, we view Ventouse (Cupping Jar), marble, with illuminated cupping jars
Photo by Ron Amstutz, © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
From the wall text: "In her art Bourgeois oscillated between maternal and paternal identifications. Broadly speaking, her work up until the late 1980s was made under the sign of the father and as a negative reaction against him. Around that time a change in ther artist's motivations became evident: in the 1990s she made Ventouse (Cupping Jar), a sculpture that heralded a decisive shift toward the mother. A low-slung black marble block is studded on top with cupping jars lit from within. Bourgeois had once treated her mother with cupping jars like these to alleviate her pain. The stone thus becomes a kind of torso, though it is reminiscent of a sarcophagus or tomb. The artist often associated her mother with death."
Passage Dangereux, 1997; metal wood, tapestry, rubber marble, steel, glass, bronze, bones, flax, and mirrors
Private Collection, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Ron Amstutz., © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
I have to admit that Freudian theory goes only so far for me. The guy was sexist in the extreme. And, really, not everyone wants a penis. But it does appear that much of Bourgeois's work comes directly from the Id.
Passage Dangereux (detail)
Photo: Peter Bellamy, © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Details above and below
Passage Dangereux (Detail)
There was more than I could shoot with my iPhone, although I was at least able to position the lens betrween the grid of the cage. In the distance is the last gallery, which contains The Destruction of the Father. We'll get to that next
As I was photographing, two well-coiffed museum goers of a certain age were discussing the work and the artist. "I had no idea," said one. "She certainly was more troubled than I'd imagined," said the other. Yes, but what bravery—or desperation—to put it all out there.
When I relayed this vignette and my comment to a friend, she told me the following story about Bourgeois, who famously opened her home on Sunday afternoons to artists looking for critical feedback and support: A photographer, a young woman, showed Bourgeois a stack of photographs she'd taken. Bourgeous asked the photographer to leave them with her—negatives, too. When the photographer went to retrieve her work, she found that Bourgeois had boiled the negatives. I wonder what Monsieur Freud would have said about that.
Installation view: Sleep, 1967, marble. Collection The Easton Foundation; The Destruction of the Father, 1974; latex, plaster, wood, fabric, and red light. Collection Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland
The Destruction of the Father
Photo: Ron Amstutz, © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Detail: In the maw of the piece
OK, it's hard not to get Freudian about this one. Dad looks to have been barbequeued and his bones picked clean
Sleep, foreground, with Filette (Sweeter Version), 1968-99, pigmented urethane rubber. Collection The Easton Foundation
This sculpture is the same or similar to the one Bourgeois carried jauntily under her arm in the Mappelthorpe photograph that opens the previous post, Spider Woman
Alternate view of Fillette (Sweeter Version)
What do you think Sigmund would have made of the shadow?
Foreground: Janus Fleuri, 1968, bronze with gold patina
Orange Episode, 1990; oil, gouache, and orange collage on board
Vocabulary of Guilt, 1999; lead, steel and tapestry wall relief. Private Collection Kaegi-Aigrain. Photo: Christopher Burke, © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Retracing our steps on the way out. The cage, Passage Dandereux, is at our back as we walk back into the first gallery
There's more to the show that I haven't shown you. You'll just have to see it for yourself
An Unfolding Portrait
At the Museum of Modern Art, September 24-2017-January 28, 2018
Originally published November 28, 2017
New York City is the perfect place for fans of Louise Bourgeois. The current splendid exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, is just one of several significant shows over the past few years. The Guggenheim dedicated its entire Manhattan space to a chronological retrospective of her oeuvre in 2008. MoMA has often included her work in thematic exhibitions, and the Chelsea gallery, Cheim & Read, mounts museum-worthy exhibitions of her sculptures and prints. The international art fairs also show her work in impressive numbers. (Some links at the end of this post.)
But back to Louise Bourgeois at MoMA. The exhibition brings together a selection of works from throughout her life, many from her own Easton Foundation. The exhibition is up through January 28, 2018.
We begin on the second-floor atrium with a frightening sculpture of a spider enclosing a cage. Bourgeois conceived of the work as calming. The spider was a lifelong reference to her mother, a tapestry weaver and restorer. To the artist's mind, sitting in the cage was to be enfolded in an embrace of protection by her maman.
Jerry Gorovoy, her longtime assistant and now head of her foundation, says, "Louise had this fear of getting rid of anything . . . When she was quite old she wondered what would happen to all the objects that had meaning to her, and I think she knew that if she incorporated them within the work, they would survive much longer than her own physical presence."
Spider Cell, 1997; steel, tapestry, wood, glass, fabric, rubber, silver, gold, and bone; MoMA image
Bourgeois engaged spirals (or perhaps the other way around) for much of her career. I love this installation of a helical sculpture against a background of three spiral prints and drawings
Joanne Mattera photographs unless otherwise noted
Center: Spiral Woman, 1984, bronze; surrounded by a selection of thematically related work
The exhibition brings together prints from two periods of active printmaking: the 1940s, when, notes the text, "she "had not yet turned to sculpture," and the last decades of her career, the 1900s and 2000s, when printmaking was an integral part of her daily practice
Untitled (The Wedges), 1950, painted wood
The story goes that while Bourgeois was raising two children in the Chelsea brownstone she shared with her art historian husband, Robert Goldwater, he had the large third floor as his office, while she worked on the roof and stored her materials in a dumbwaiter. The year and materials would suggest that this is one of the pieces made under those circumstances
I forgot to snap the wall card for this work, so I don't have specific information for you, but looking at the work it's clear that Bourgeois has spun together images of spiders and maternal figures, with their big bellies and breasts, as the closer view below, and the opening text, make clear
Sainte Sebastienne, 1992, drypoint, edition of 50
I don't know what was on her mind when she made this print, but it could not be more timely: a metaphorical Me Too. The view below (MoMA photo) gives you a sense of scale of this work. Also it's nice to see the exhibition here without the hordes
This is a section of the show that I particularly love. Toward the end of her long career Bourgeois turned to the clothes and fabrics she had used, and saved, over a lifetime
Bourgeois worked in a variety of materials throughout her long career, but her themes of human suffering are woven throughout, as the placement of these two heads--one printed on a household fabric, the other cobbled from stuffing and fabric scraps--make clear
Closer view below
Ode a l'oubli (Ode to Forgetting), 2002, illustrated book with 32 fabric collages
It's an interesting title since the fabrics Bourgeois used conjured up so many memories for her
A panorama of the pages of this book, Ode a l'Oubli
Below: a few unbound pages. Note the buttonholes for binding
(As you scroll this post, you will see more pages in the section that follows)
Bourgwois was also a tireless printmaker. Here, The Three Graces, 1998-2001; drypoint, engraving, and aquatint, with gouache, crayon, correction fluid, colored pencil,. and ink additions
The cast bronze Arch of Hysteria dominates the last room of the exhibition
Jerry Gorovoy describes the work: "The hanging arch figure is actually a cast of my body. Louise had me lie down on a curved mound to get this shape, and then the body was in a plaster mold, which she then cut up to make this curve
To Louise the state of hanging was this idea of fragility, because it meant that the body could turn, it could pivot, it could spin, so it wasn't a stable kind of thing. Louise wanted this figure to have a high polish so that the viewer’s face is caught inside the body of this contorted figure. So it brings the viewer into the picture."
PostscriptA smaller exhibition of another of Bourgeois's books, Ode a la Bievre (Ode to the Bievre River, the stream near where she grew up, outside Paris) is at the Carolina Nitsch Project Space in Chelsea through November 30. Here the pages, individually framed, consist not only of stitched fabric but of digital prints of fabric--a tantalizing tromp l'oeil of what we know about her fabric books.
A wall of framed pages, with a few closer views below
In the vitrine we see a bound edition of Ode a l'Oubli, opened to one of the pages you saw at MoMA earlier in this post
Ode à l'Oubli at MoMAFeatured in Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions, 1940s to Now, May 6-August 16, 2010
Originally published July 21, 2010
What you're reading here is the second post of a two-part series I originally titled Motherlode, in which I reported on an exhibition that featured the holdings of 12 of the museum's women artists. (You can read Part 1 here, which includes the work of Bourgeois, Kusama, Nevelson and others.) In this post I chose to focus on Bourgeois's fabric book, Ode à l'Oubli, not knowing that seven years hence the museum would include the pages in another exhibition, An Unfolding Portrait. It's thrilling to see familiar work recontextualized, so I share this post with you.
Looking past the Yayoi Kusama sculpture in the foreground, you can see the cloth pages of Ode à l'Oubli on the far wall
Pages of Ode à l'Oubli, a cloth book by Louise Bourgeois, installed in Mind and Matter
Back in 2004 I read an article in the New York Times about a fabric book by Louise Bourgeois that was being editioned by master printer Judith Solodkin. By coincidence shortly afterward, a friend who had an appointment with Solodkin invited me to join her in the shop, Solo Impressions, located in the Starrett-Lehigh building on far West 26th Street.
This was no ordinary printshop. Amid the presses and drying racks were sewing and embroidery machines, and stations for glitter and other unusual materials. In one area were the pages of Louise Bourgeois’s book, Ode à l’Oubli. I would see them shortly thereafter on exhibition at the Peter Blum Gallery in SoHo—Blum was publisher of the edition—but here I was seeing them at the point of creation, where lithography was done on pieces of Bourgeois's linen trousseau, and even their fabric stains were recreated for the edition of 25.
[Clarification: Raylene Marasco, president of the SoHo-based Dyenamix, emailed me with this assitional information: "It was actually Dyenamix that printed and dyed the majority of the materials for the Ode a L'Oubli. Judith did, in fact, construct the pages and assemble the book and printed the silkscreened pages, but she was not the only print house providing the process for the project. We actually provided the printed or dyed fabric for 27 of the 34 pages in the book."]
Judith Solodkin, right, works on the book with an assistant at her press, Solo Impressions Photo: Tony Cenicola/The New York times, from the Internet
Ode à l’Oubli is now featured prominently in the Mind and Matter show at MoMA, and you can see those pages up close yourself. In this exhibition there are two editions of the book. In one edition, the entire book is arranged page by page on the wall. There’s also a bound edition in a vitrine; in the spread on display you can see the way the stitching from the previous page is visible on the left and its relation to the new page on the right. Despite the softness of the book, the work has nothing to do with Claes Oldenberg and everything to do with Bourgeois’s personal history—she reportedly used a lifetime's worth of personal fabrics—drawing on her textile history as the daughter of a tapestry restorer (who inspired the enormous bronze spiders of Bourgeois’s late career).
In translation, the title is Ode to Forgetfulness, yet these pages seems to have recorded much of the artist's life through the fabrics she wore and used. It's not so easy to forget when your life flashes before your eyes in this way.
A few individual pages below:
A view of more of the pages
Above, installation view with individual pages and vitrine, foreground
Below, the open book inside the vitrine
I love how you can see the back of the previous page in this spread, which features the page below. The printing and embroidery on this page are on one of LB's embroidered linen napkins. Can you see the monogram inside the white oval? It's LBG, Louise Bourgeois Goldwater
Click here for Part 1 of Mind Over Matter, which remains on my archived blog
There are so many internet posts and publications about Louise Bourgeois that I will leave you to surf the web as you wish