Critics’ Picks

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1996, embroidered handkerchief, 19 1/2 x 18''.

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1996, embroidered handkerchief, 19 1/2 x 18''.


“Louise Bourgeois x Jenny Holzer”

Kunstmuseum Basel
St. Alban-Graben 16 & 20
February 19–May 15, 2022

In this exhibition, Louise Bourgeois’s work is presented through Jenny Holzer’s curatorial vision—with an assist from Kunstmuseum Basel’s Anita Haldeman—thus drawing parallels between the two artists’ use of the written word as an art form unto itself. During a press conference, Holzer recalled being marked by Bourgeois’s sculpture Femme Maison, 1982, and meeting the formidable Frenchwoman in person in the 1980s (“she was not playing”). The exhibition’s subtitle—“The Violence of Handwriting Across a Page”—accentuates the forceful charge of self-expression, even when masquerading behind wry humor. Contrary to Holzer—long synonymous with all-caps slogans that telescope societal failings—Bourgeois obsessively mined her interior, confronting desire, fury, and trauma though stream-of-consciousness reflections scrawled onto loose-leaf paper and journals, in tandem with psychoanalysis. Her writings took on stark new immediacy when she extracted certain phrases, giving them pride of place on faded mail sacks (“I neeD my mEmoRies. THEY ARe my DOCUMENTS”), marble (“THE HOUR IS DEVOTED TO REVENGE”) or lined music paper (“I am on the other side of despair/and this happens to me 4 times a day”). There is a clear overlap, nonetheless, between Holzer and Bourgeois’s handling of text: Each deployed it, tactically, to channel seething discontent, albeit toward different targets.

Beyond the nine galleries dedicated to Bourgeois’ work, one can hear a recording of the artist singing “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” in the elevator, while the passageway linking the museum’s two separate buildings features the rarely-seen and quite unnerving Twosome, 1991, a hefty mechanical tank car, incandescent with lurid red light, heaving back-and-forth on a track. As an add-on, Holzer developed an augmented-reality app, transforming Bourgeois’s 1974 installation Destruction of the Father into a digital “experience,” which frankly seems like something Bourgeois would have loathed. More fittingly, Holzer placed a few choice Bourgeois works within the Swiss museum’s permanent collection. A replica of the phallic drawing Fillette, 1998, hung next to a codpiece-centric sixteenth-century portrait by Tobias Stimmer, is especially memorable.