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Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010)

Louise Bourgeois, the French-born American artist who gained fame only late in a long career, when her psychologically charged abstract sculptures, drawings, and prints had a galvanizing effect on younger artists––particularly women––has died at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan, reports Holland Cotter for the New York Times. She was 98. Wendy Williams, the managing director of Bourgeois’s studio, confirmed her death.

Bourgeois’s sculptures in wood, steel, stone, and cast rubber, often organic in form and sexually explicit, emotionally aggressive yet witty, covered many stylistic bases. But from first to last they shared a set of repeated themes, centered on the human body and its need for nurture and protection in a frightening world, notes Cotter.

Among her most familiar sculptures, Nature Study, 1984, depicts a headless sphinx with powerful claws and multiple breasts. Of her most provocative is Fillette, 1968, a large, detached latex phallus. Bourgeois can be seen carrying this object, nonchalantly tucked under one arm, in a portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe, which was taken for the catalogue of her 1982 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (In the catalogue, the Mapplethorpe picture is cropped to show only the artist’s smiling face.)

Bourgeois was born in Paris on December 25, 1911. At fifteen, she studied mathematics at the Sorbonne. Her studies of geometry contributed to her early Cubist drawings. Still searching, she began painting, studying at the École du Louvre and then the École des Beaux-Arts, and worked as an assistant to Fernand Léger. In 1938, she moved with her American husband, Robert Goldwater, to New York City and continued her studies at the Art Students League of New York.

Bourgeois had many notable exhibitions. In 1993, she represented the United States at the Venice Biennale and in 2000, she was commissioned for the inaugural installation in Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern. In 2007, the Tate organized a major retrospective of Bourgeois’s work and this exhibition later travelled to the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC.

On the occasion of her retrospective at MoMA in 1982, Bourgeois published a photo essay in Artforum that revealed the impact of childhood trauma on her art. “Everything I do,” she exclaimed, “was inspired by my early life.”