PRINT March 1975

Louise Bourgeois: From the Inside Out

IT IS DIFFICULT TO FIND a framework vivid enough to incorporate Louise Bourgeois’s sculpture. Attempts to bring a coolly evolutionary or art-historical order to her work, or to see it in the context of one art group or another, have proved more or less irrelevant. Any approach—nonobjective, figurative, sexually explicit, awkward or chaotic; and any material—perishable latex and plaster, traditional marble and bronze, wood, cement, paint, wax, resin—can serve to define her own needs and emotions. Rarely has an abstract art been so directly and honestly informed by its maker’s psyche.

Each period of Bourgeois’s work tends to correspond to the hidden rhythms of her life at the time. It ebbs and flows between anxiety, tenderness, fear, rage, and, sometimes, a stoic calm. Obsessed with her content, she moves back and forth between techniques and styles, doing what she has to do to exorcise the images that haunt her. The resulting unevenness reflects primarily an internal erraticism, and only secondarily an external eclecticism. While her work has formal affinities with that of artists as diverse as Miró Kiesler, Hesse, Arp, Hepworth, Giacometti, or the Salemmes, it so clearly has other origins that such comparisons are far less interesting than the violent clues to the artist’s intentions which provide the aura for these forms. I am also reminded by this almost animistic oeuvre of various “primitive” artifacts, of their emotive qualities more than their formal influence (shared by the Cubists whom Bourgeois knew in Paris, by her friends among the Surrealists and the burgeoning New York School in the 1940s and 1950s). Much tribal art is made to insure continued contact with natural forces, to ward off evil, encourage good, and to deal with fear. Bourgeois’s animism serves similar functions.

Her references are frequently nostalgic. She traces her obsession with houses and rivers, and all they imply as symbols, to her childhood along the Bièvre River. (Bourgeois was the daughter of two self-employed tapestry workers with roots in Aubusson.) It would, however, be a mistake to see Bourgeois as the classically “feminine” artist, adrift in memory and intuition, for her first formal “revelation,” and the origin of her love for sculpture, was solid geometry. Though from the age of fifteen she worked with her parents as a drafts-woman restoring ancient tapestries, she majored in math at school, took her baccalaureate in philosophy, and studied calculus and solid geometry at the Sorbonne. Only in 1936, at the age of twenty-five, did she begin to study art history and art—with Léger, among others. She arrived in New York in 1938—French, newly married, appalled by the impersonality of a skyscraper city, already a loner and something of an eccentric.

A lasting preoccupation with “the relation of one person to his/her surroundings”1 was augmented by her spatial fascination with and alienation from New York. The small surrealizing paintings and stark engravings—graphic representations of sculptural forms—made in the 1940s, dealt with “uneasy spaces,”2 a world where the embrace is smothering. Recurring themes were containment, the woman’s body-house; the frustrated desire for escape (ladders going the wrong way, a balloon hovering desolately in a room, foiled by too small a door); houses with wings, or containing fires “against depression”; looming columns with circular eyes; a “coffin, for time that is gone.” Anxiety is pervasive in these highly autobiographical works which reflect the artist’s view of herself as a little girl—“trying to be good and absolutely disgusted with the world.”

Another constant theme is the hermetic portrait. Bourgeois’s first two sculpture shows, in 1949 and 1950 at the Peridot Gallery, consisted of a series of painted black, white, and red wooden pole pieces brought together in an empty room as an environment of abstract personnages. The lovely stemlike figures stood in couples or alone, and observers remarked a painful sense of isolation. Each piece was pointed, “reluctant to touch anything, fearful of life itself.” Their hooded, ghostlike quality, reminiscent of primitive ancestor totems, was indeed part of a private ritual by which Bourgeois could “summon all of the people I missed. I was not interested in details; I was interested in their physical presence. It was some kind of an encounter.” She also had “a portable brother—a pole you could carry around”; the abstract portrait of one of her sons as a child is in the form of a free lying wooden knife—the bottom forked, the sharp top painted in a “window” pattern; upside down it resembles a horned Bambara mask.

In the 1960s, pieces with repeated leaf and tentacular shapes on one base, usually surrounding a single form colored or shaped differently, evolved into the “crowds” of breast-phallus protrusions, fingerlike growths, rounded cylinders with various vertical or horizontal emphases. Sometimes these are flexible bunches, pushing up through the rough terrain, sometimes bullet shapes on flat platforms, sometimes sensuously shining domes covered by a Baroque drapery from which some emerge, beneath which others hide. These last are titled Cumulous, recalling earlier drawings of clustered hills and hill-breast-clouds. “If we are very very compulsive, all we have at our disposal is to repeat, and that expresses the validity of what we have to say. This is so important to me that all I can find is to repeat and repeat and repeat.”

The “crowds,” or multiplied standing forms, make up a good deal of the past few years’ work. They are frequently groups of crisp geometric columns of marble with the tops sliced off at an angle to form a clean facet—found objects in Italy, where Bourgeois, undaunted by its traditional references, began to work in marble during the summer of 1968. Appropriately enough, these forms are the cores of containers, of marble vases and pitchers made for the tourist trade. The most impressive use of these forms is The Marchers, shown at the 1972–73 Whitney Annual, in which a large number of faceted columns of varying sizes and colors were placed on the floor in neither chaotic nor ordered rows. The image of a solemn mob was augmented, not entirely successfully, by a sweeping light which gave the effect of movement; also, implied, was the FBI’s “searching” at demonstrations. Bourgeois has always been politically active and The Marchers, the black bullet pieces, and an evocative “Molotov Cocktail,” noted the existence of the Vietnam war. One of the sculptures which prefigured the dramatic quality of The Marchers was The Blind Leading the Blind — a black lintel and spiked post piece made in 1949, around the time that Bourgeois, with Duchamp and Ozenfant, was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Her show at the Stable Gallery in 1964 introduced the “lair”—a wholly different image, though still preoccupied with dependence and independence, enclosure and exclusion, the aggressive and the vulnerable, order and disorder. The lairs, made from plaster and latex, had their sources in some obsessively linear landscape drawings which also refer to skeins of wool, associated with the artist’s mother; in one of these, the cave-tunnel made its first appearance. The hanging, nest like bag forms merge inside and outside to return to the house-body images. Like the skeins of wool, they are “friendly; you can hide inside of them.” Peering into the lairs is like walking through a rough-walled labyrinth. They “grow from the center, the more important organs being hidden; the life is inside. . . . which causes it to grow to a certain size.”3 One lair continues ropelike to turn upon itself and is hollow; some are weighted in such a way that they rock on their bases and “eventually come to rest through their own stability.”

The latex pieces, hanging, folding, rising with a curious and sensual combination-of limpness and stiffness, are the plaster pieces inside out. One has a slit into a viscous labial interior; another is a miniature landscape or viscerascape of shining flesh-colored undulations. Others are almost scatological; others hang like the memories of performances.4 Throughout Bourgeois’s oeuvre, shapes and ideas appear and disappear in a maze of versions, materials, incarnations. She has used latex as the soft avatar of her hard forms. A shape may be made first from soft plaster (which turns hard), then cast in latex so that a permanently soft mould, or skin, exists independently, then made in marble, which is the final epitome of hardness. She thought at one point of having a performer dressed in a latex mold act out the piece’s symbolic origins.

The most recent and ambitious lair was a full-scale environment in Bourgeois’s December, 1974, show at 112 Greene Street. Called Le Repas du soir (The Evening Meal), it was intended as a nightmarish comment on the family—the weights and pressures and anxious zones of close interaction. The space is claustrophobically squeezed between a field of hard domes, a lumpy evocative “landscape,” and the domes’ soft counterparts hanging bulbously from above with a Damoclean tension. Molds of chicken legs lie strewn around it and a male portrait head rolls in a dark corner. Both hard and soft forms were a pale color and, enclosed in a dark curtained box, they glowed eerily. The whole exhibition —Bourgeois’s first in ten years—had a curious aura of loneliness and intimacy. In that vast shabby space, she placed her relatively small marble pieces without bases, almost at random (a tiny white marble female waist-to-knees figure was cast off on the floor by itself). Some were dimly lit, others not at all, simply holding their own in the gloom. One had to go very close to come into real contact with each piece. In a well-lit room they would have become conventional objects too small for the space. As it was, they fully inhabited it.

Nature is an indirect, perhaps subconscious, source for many of these images. A large oval plaster relief with an amoeboid form pushing up as though into another medium has a strongly foetal imagery; its source is the tadpoles the artist played with in the river as a child. Another group of forms are almost literally alive, formed as they were by placing wet wood inside plaster; the plaster dried the wood, which then split its shell, using physical pressure as a simultaneous metaphor for anxiety and birth. As William Rubin has observed, “We are in the world of germination and eclosion—the robust sexuality of things under and upon the earth.”5 Bourgeois is aware of the eroticism in her work, though she insists “I’m so inhibited at the reality level that the eroticism is completely unconscious. I find great pleasure and great ease in doing things that turn out to be erotic, but I do not plan them.” For many years she did not openly acknowledge the sexual content of her art:

People talked about erotic aspects, about my obsessions, but they didn’t discuss the phallic aspects. If they had, I would have ceased to do it. . . . Now I admit the imagery. I am not embarrassed about it. . . . When I was young, sex was talked of as a dangerous thing; sexuality was forbidden. . . . At the École des Beaux-Arts, we had a nude male model. One day he looked around and saw a woman student and suddenly he had an erection. I was shocked. Then I thought what a fantastic thing, to reveal your vulnerability, to be so publicly exposed! We are all vulnerable in some way, and we are all male-female.6

Bourgeois’s phallic images are at times benign—fat, nestling, almost “motherly.” Le Trani Episode is two long round soft forms piled comfortably on top of each other; one has a nipple on the end, and both look like penises. She sees such mergings of “opposites” as a presexual perception of the dangerous father and the protective mother, “the problem of survival, having to do with identification with one or the other; with merging and adopting the differences of the father.” Fillette (Little Girl)—an ironically titled latex and plaster penis and testicles hanging from a hook—is so large “you can carry it around like a baby, have it as a doll.” Nevertheless, the element of cruelty is unmistakable, as it is in several other phallic pieces, such as a plaster spiral which represents “strangling—twisting the neck of an animal. How do you define pain, suffering? Nobody has words to make other people understand what you’ve gone through. This is an inner image of this element.”

Bourgeois’s images of women and woman’s experience are also ambivalent, juxtaposing a nurturing power of growth and emergence with the sharp threat of oppression. Her plaster self-portrait is armless, legless, centrally armored in heavy rib forms, but soft at top and bottom. The little stylized torsos in black-and-white marble are “rigid, becoming masculine forms.” From the early pole sculptures (“posts—you dig a hole and pound them in; they are defensive images”), came the Femme pieu (stake-woman). In one of several versions she is a grotesque parody of the Venus of Willendorf (thought by some to have been made by a woman as a fertility charm), lumbering forward, armless, her head replaced by a stakelike point, defending her exaggerated voluptuousness. Similarly, the knife-woman (Femme couteau)—a wrapped and folded marble blade with delicate pudenda exposed—

embodies the polarity of woman, the destructive and the seductive. . . . The woman turns into a blade. . . . A girl can be terrified of the world. She feels vulnerable because she can be wounded by the penis. So she tries to take on the weapon of the aggressor.7 But when woman becomes aggressive, she becomes terribly afraid. If you are inhibited by needles, stakes and knives, you are very handicapped to be a self-perceptive creature. These women are eternally reaching for a way of becoming women. Their anxiety comes from their doubt of being ever able to become receptive. The battle is fought at the terror level which precedes anything sexual.

One of the most pathetic manifestations of such a double image is a small Femme pieu of green brown wax which lies, again legless and armless, like a stranded turtle on its back, breasts and vulva and an abdominal wound exposed to all corners. Bourgeois used this piece as a pincushion, and the soft form is violated by large and small needles, suggesting some terrible fetish. She too, connects the image with sorcery. As a child, she was attached to a furpiece held together by needles. “The needle was so effective and so small that it had a magic quality. You could hurt people and you could make things people liked. Its magic power has never quite vanished. It is partly a way to be appreciated, a desire to please.”

Bourgeois makes certain types of work under specific emotional conditions. After her husband’s death she turned to “aggressive” work—cutting and drilling bits of wood to be strung on metal rods something she has done off and on for years, and considers “a kind of knitting.” The thick wood is cut and bored, “dismembered”—processes she finds “unbearable” and does “only under very strong anxiety. The aggressive ones make me doubt my femininity and I can’t stand that. When reality is manageable then I can become a woman again and pour, make the feminine works.” Plaster, wax, and latex, she sees as friendly materials, and I prefer the work she does in these media to that in bronze (which she admits is “dead” compared to the “richness and live quality of plaster”) or marble, though she likes its permanence. Equally at home with additive or subtractive processes, the flexible and the resistant, she has “never believed in the romanticism of ‘truth to material.’ Some materials are fine for the pinning down of ideas, but they are not permanent and they do not take on a satisfactory surface.”8 The major function of her work is to follow the “inner necessity, to release anxiety into a formal perfection.”

Bourgeois actually has a very literal imagination. Patrice Marandel points out that her sculpture, “though it is not figurative, develops nevertheless in an atmosphere of figuration which engages the viewer in interpreting it on his/her own terms.”9 Many of these viewers are put off by the prospect, preferring to deal with art at a more oblique angle. Bourgeois exists in the dangerous near-chaotic climate of Surrealism’s “reconciliation of two distant realities.” While some of her sculpture seems to be the result of random exploration with no immediate point in view, this is not wholly a disadvantage unless one thinks in terms of logical progression, which she certainly does not. Lovingly and fearfully woven and unwound from her own body and her own needs, her art’s sensuality can be so strong that it overwhelms all other considerations. Like many women, she identifies surfaces with her skin—it can be the cloth in Cumulous, or a thin layer of peeling latex over bulbous plaster, or the heavier folds in Fillette, or a glowing flow of dark resin totally immersing underlying forms. Within the art (as, one suspects, within the artist) form and the formless are locked in constant combat. The outcome is an unusually exposed demonstration of the intimate bond between art and its maker. Despite her apparent fragility, Bourgeois is an artist, and a woman artist, who has survived almost 40 years of discrimination, struggle, intermittent success and neglect, in New York’s gladitorial art arenas. The tensions which make her work unique are forged between just those poles of tenacity and vulnerability.

Lucy R. Lippard



1. All quotations not otherwise sourced are from the artist in conversation with the author, fall, 1974.

2. Daniel Robbins, “Sculpture by Louise Bourgeois,” Art International, October 20, 1965.

3. From notes written by the artist in response to questions posed by William Rubin in preparation for an article on Bourgeois.

4. Some of these latex pieces from the mid-1960s were shown at the Fischbach Gallery, in the “Eccentric Abstraction” show, September, 1966; with Bruce Nauman’s early latex work, also in the show, they suggested possibilities later expanded as “antiform.”

5. William Rubin, “Some Reflections Prompted by the Recent Work of Louise Bourgeois,” Art International, April, 1969, pp. 17–20.

6. Quoted in Dorothy Seiberling, “The Female View of Erotica,” New York Magazine, February 11, 1974.

7. Ibid.

8. Notes for Rubin (see note 3).

9. Patrice Marandel, “Louise Bourgeois,” Art International, December, 1971, pp. 45–48.