Published  21/08/2008

A Runaway Girl at Home in New York: Louise Bourgeois at the Guggenheim

A Runaway Girl at Home in New York: Louise Bourgeois at the Guggenheim

Louise Bourgeois, a travelling retrospective marking the artist's nearly 100 years of living and more than seven decades of art-making, is an ambitious project. Opening in October 2007 at Tate Modern in London, the exhibit appeared at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and now is installed in expanded form at the Guggenheim in New York. The museum's singular Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda, with its spiralling ramps, emphasises Bourgeois's prevailing modes of operation: recalling, recreating, reworking, revisiting and re-examining.1

Accompanying the exhibit proper and displayed in the Sackler Center for Arts Education, A Life in Pictures: Louise Bourgeois presents photographs and diaries from the artist's extensive archives. The journals, in particular, are critical for understanding the role that art-making plays for the artist as a means of survival, a way to grapple with her turbulent inner life. Unlike her meticulously crafted carvings, sculptures and installations, Bourgeois's journals have an unguarded spontaneity. Here one finds evidence of her existential fears, Freudian readings of experiences and faith in the power of the unconscious to seed art. The diaries are containers for the self-doubts, conflicts and confusion with which Bourgeois has wrestled throughout her life, from her childhood in France prior to the two world wars to today as a physically frail but productive artist living in New York.

In 1989, when Chief Curator Nancy Spector joined the Guggenheim's staff, Bourgeois's work was not represented in the museum's collection. Spector felt that Bourgeois's presence was critical and, after securing support from Director Thomas Krens, she made the first of many visits to Bourgeois's Brooklyn studio. This resulted in 16 acquisitions including: primitive wood carvings called 'Personages', made from the mid-1940s to mid-1950s; one of her biomorphic nest-like forms from the Sixties; an environmental-scale installation made in the Seventies; and a 'cell' assemblage from the Nineties. Bourgeois gave the Guggenheim ten drawings and a bronze sculpture, as well. These acquisitions were shown together with works by Joseph Beuys in 1992 for the opening of the Guggenheim Museum SoHo.2

Riddled with contradictions herself, Bourgeois's drawings, prints, paintings, sculpture and installations defy summary. Retrospectives are, typically, occasions to summarise, but Tate Modern curator Frances Morris, who edited the catalogue, and her colleagues have resisted with a novel arrangement. The catalogue text is a glossary of themes (for example, maternity), 'isms' (exorcism, primitivism, feminism), techniques (engraving, sewing), works (The Reticent Child), symbols (spiders, body parts), materials (needles), people (father Louis, his mistress Sadie), teachers (Fernand Léger), places (Aubusson), psychological states (panic) and phobias (basophobia).

Organising the material alphabetically, of course, renders associations between any and all terms arbitrary and allows for the possibility of fresh insights. The glossary entries were written by a distinguished group of contributors, including Bourgeois scholar Marie-Laure Bernadac, critic Lucy Lippard, novelist/cultural historian Marina Warner and Museum of Modern Art curator Deborah Wye, who organised the 1982 Bourgeois retrospective at MoMA.3 Essays on such topics as Bourgeois's 'old age style' (by New York University Professor Linda Nochlin), the psychological foundation for her images (by Mignon Nixon of the Courtauld Institute), Bourgeois's connection to feminism (by author Elisabeth Lebovici), and the artist's persona as a 'Runaway Girl' (by French feminist Julia Kristeva) are printed at intervals within the alphabetical listing.4

In addition to the perspectives offered in the catalogue, a number of contemporary artists have signed on to lead guided tours of the exhibit. Influenced by Bourgeois personally and in their work, these artists include controversial performance artist Karen Finley, multimedia artist Nayland Blake and installation artist David Altmejd. Lectures given by Robert Storr, Dean of Yale School of Art, and Nochlin are on the calendar, as well.

In light of what is known about Bourgeois's childhood traumas and her continuing struggles with anxiety and depression, revisiting her work apart from this knowledge is challenging. This retrospective, though, offers viewers a chance to take Bourgeois on her own terms. While her themes have remained constant through each career stage, materials, techniques and scales - these have changed, taking Bourgeois in unexpected directions.

Somehow, her work seems contemporary because she deals with the deepest human needs, longings and emotions. Because artistic process itself restores her equilibrium, her survival is at stake. The materials that interest her at any given stage in her career are ones that can more accurately render her internal states. Bourgeois has stated that her work 'is never finished. The subject is never exhausted'. As she explained to authors Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan: 'When the world of fantasy and wishes goes beyond the limits of what's reasonable, the fear strikes. Fear leads into depression. So you should be very careful to keep a balance. The work says, "Now Louise, do not go overboard in hating, in loving. Just be a little bit more level". The work is about pulling back and finding a little balance for all these feelings'.5 In 'Spiral Woman' (1984), a hanging bronze self-portrait, one senses the precarious nature of her distress. While some works can be viewed as acts of aggression (notably in the cannibalistic 'The Destruction of the Father', a plaster, latex, wood and fabric work from 1974), hers is a violence enacted in the safe container of art. Bourgeois's objective remains steadfastly restorative.

Born in Paris on Christmas Day, 1911, Bourgeois spent her first years in a large house outside the city, Choisy-le-Roi. There, her parents ran a tapestry workshop. The repair of worn and damaged tapestry became symbolic for her, with art and 'repair' becoming inextricably linked in Bourgeois's psyche. Although she had siblings, Louise claims to have been the centre of her parents' attention, and they vied for her preference. When war broke out in 1914, her father, Louis, and his brother were sent to fight. Mother Joséphine moved the family to her ancestral home in Aubusson. Bourgeois's earliest memories are of feeling abandoned by her father and seeing injured soldiers in hospital when she and her mother visited a wounded Louis. (Louis's brother was killed during his first week of fighting.)

Pivotal points in her biography include beginning to draw designs at the workshop at age ten; caring for her mother, who contracted Spanish flu at the end of the war; and, most deeply, the arrival of an English tutor named Sadie who became Louis's mistress. The triangle between Louis, Joséphine and Sadie caused great tension in the family. Louise sat in the centre of this triangle and, it seems, has never found her way out. Rage and frustration alternated with fierce love for her mother and an uneasy but strong love for her father. Many of Louise's personal choices were reactions against Louis's personality: she studied art against his wishes; she became interested in Communism and travelled to Russia in the 1930s because she knew he would disapprove; and she married American art historian Robert Goldwater because, as she has stated, he was kind, never angered and 'could put my father in his place'.6 In her catalogue essay, Kristeva points to Bourgeois's restnessless and says that Bourgeois '...confirms the peregrine fate of creators (men and women alike)'. The artist declared her status as a fugitive when she said, 'I married an American. I left France because I freed myself or escaped from home. I was a runaway girl. I was running away from a family situation that was very disturbing'.7

After moving to New York, Bourgeois enrolled in the Art Students league and met many artists, writers, curators and critics in Goldwater's circle. As their life together progressed, the Goldwaters adopted one son and Bourgeois gave birth to two of their own. She had her first solo show of paintings in 1945 and participated in a group show at the Whitney. She made engravings with parables ('He Disappeared Into Complete Silence'); created her 'Femme Maison' series; and began to sculpt her 'Personages' on the roof of the family's apartment building. Carved from blocks of balsa wood, the 'Personages', her first sculptures, expressed mourning, the sadness she felt at running away to a new life while those left behind suffered through the war. Since she could carry these figures with her, they provided comfort as surrogate family. She exhibited her 'Personages' at the Peridot Gallery in New York in 1949 and 1950, arranging them in groups and bolting them to the floor, where they resembled people attending an exhibit. Like her husband, Bourgeois was interested in art from primitive cultures. The 'Personages' function as totemic objects of worship, imbued with a mysterious and tangible presence. The 'Femme Maison' drawings (1946-1947) reflect other concerns. The women in this series are naked, with houses for heads. Their bodies have been overtaken by the physical demands of domesticity. Influenced in France by the surrealists, in New York Bourgeois was influenced by the urban landscape with its tall buildings and crowds of people confined in small spaces. 'Femme Maison' reflects both influences.

Despite these shows, Bourgeois realised that her work would not attract attention from critics, museum curators and collectors. During the 1950s, such opinion makers were courting the male abstract expressionists. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko stole the spotlight, while Bourgeois withdrew. During the next decade, new materials lured her back to art-making: plaster, latex and resin. These materials yielded softer shapes, rounded forms that recall the ancient caves in Lascaux, France, she visited in 1953 with Goldwater. Works from this period include 'Fée Couturiére' (1963), 'Lair' (1962-63) and 'Resin Eight' (1965).8 These nest-like structures are protective dwellings, secret hiding places. Sensuous, some resemble the sculpted body parts for which Bourgeois is well known. Bourgeois continued to explore latex's potential during the 1970s. Expanding her reach into performance art, she staged 'A Banquet/A Fashion Show of Body Parts' where models wore latex costumes with breast-like attachments. Subsequently, she sculpted male and female parts in single works, blurring the boundaries of gender-based sexuality and raising questions of sexual identity.

Continuing along the Guggenheim's ramps, visitors will discover a pattern. One is lured by the voyeuristic temptation of spying on intimate details in the cells, or by the comforting rag-doll-like soft sculptures ('Seven in Bed' from 2001, for instance - only to be caught off guard when closer inspection reveals that delicate children's clothing is hung from beef bone hangers (in 'Pink Days and Blue Days', 1997). Recognition of something familiar, followed by shock and surprise, is invigorating. What first appears to be a large, puffy cloud suddenly becomes alive. The marble from which it is made twists, flows, appears to float freely in space. And what about the shimmering objects arrayed on the dark marble slab that is 'Ventouse' (1990)? They look like glasses one might find at a flea market or yard sale. In fact, Bourgeois found them in a market in the south of France. These glass 'cupping jars', a traditional healing remedy, are similar to ones used by the artist on her mother.

Since her 1982 retrospective at MoMA, Bourgeois has been celebrated as a major 20th-century artist, embraced by feminists, chosen to represent the USA at the 1993 Venice Biennale, featured in a BBC documentary (1994) and honoured by institutions around the globe. While the world's eyes focus on her, she continues to live quietly, work continuously and host her Sunday Salons, where artists, writers and enthusiasts of all ages gather for something of an intellectual free-for-all. Credentials and opportunism must be left at the door, but opinions, apparently, are welcome. The past two decades of her life have included trips to Carrara, Italy, to work in pink marble; a collaboration with playwright Arthur Miller on Homely Girl, A Life: and Other Stories (1992); and an invitation from Tate Modern to make the museum's first installation, 'I Do, I Undo and I Redo', for its ground floor Turbine Hall on the occasion of its opening in May 2000.9 Long-time assistant Jerry Gorovoy has been an anchor for Bourgeois during these years, as she becomes less mobile but still needs the release of making art.

On Christmas day 2008, Louise Bourgeois will turn 98 years old. Although her practice has changed according to her abilities (with the help of assistants, she focuses on sewn works harkening back to her early years in the tapestry factory), Bourgeois continues to make art and shows no signs of stopping. A means of survival, an instinct learned early in life, art is life for Louise Bourgeois.

Cindi Di Marzo

1. 'Louise Bourgeois' premiered at Tate Modern (10 October 2007-20 January 2008), then travelled to Centre Georges Pompidou (5 March-2 June 2008). On view at the Guggenheim from 27 June to 12 September 2008, 'Louise Bourgeois' next appears at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (26 October 2008-25 January 2009) and ends its run at the Smithsonian Institution's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC (26 February-17 May 2009).
2. The pairing of Bourgeois and Beuys highlighted connections between the strong narrative content of their works and their understanding of artistic practice as personally regenerative.
3. More than two decades ago, when Bourgeois was in her seventies, she received a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As the first retrospective given by MoMA to a woman sculptor, the 1982 exhibit drew Bourgeois into the public eye, a place in which she had not spent much time. Previously, Bourgeois had shown her work sporadically and never actively sought to do so. She has described the years when she was unknown as a gift, a time to work undisturbed. For the MoMA exhibit, Bourgeois allowed the public a rare glimpse of her private life, making a slide presentation, 'Partial Recall', relating her early family history. Subsequently, her candid revelations led to many studies examining the family's dysfunction, Bourgeois's troubled relationship with her father, attachment to her mother and rage against her English tutor, Sadie.
4. The 304-page exhibition catalogue, Louise Bourgeois, is available in hardcover and paperback editions and has 160 colour and 80 black-and-white illustrations.
5. Greenberg J, Jordan S. Runaway Girl: the Artist Louise Bourgeois. New York: Abrams, 2003: 17.
6. Ibid: 31.
7. Morris F (ed). Louise Bourgeois (Exhibition catalogue): 249.
8. The English translation of Fée Couturiére, 'Fairy Seamstress', underscores Bourgeois's intent with these pieces. 'Fairy Seamstress' is another name for the tailorbird, which creates nests from a motley assortment of found materials.
9. In January 2008, Tate Modern acquired Bourgeois's 'Maman' (1999), a giant and playful homage to the artist's mother and motherhood, given to the museum by the artist and an anonymous donor. Bronze casts of 'Maman' are permanently displayed at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, Korea, the Mori Arts Center in Tokyo and at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

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