New York

Louise Bourgeois

Xavier Fourcade Gallery

Louise Bourgeois’ mini-retrospective, “Sculpture 1941–1953 (plus one new piece)” is astonishing not in the ironic way of Irma Blank but in its aggression and accomplishment. They are the signal sculptures in the age of painting. The curatorial saw about sculpture—that they’re what you run into as you back away from the paintings on the wall—is only the tip of the iceberg of contempt with which sculptures are usually treated. Hard to move, difficult to insure, harder still to install, sculpture retrospectives are few and far between, while painting retrospectives occur at the drop of a hat.

Bourgeois’ work of the early period, previously unfamiliar to me except through reproduction, is certainly an eye-opener. Her touch with wood is quirky, precarious; none of her totems or sawteeth seem to have weight in terms of bulk, but they are weighty in other ways. Biomorphic, symbolic, these forms share a lot with those of Abstract Expressionist paintings, but Bourgeois’ work is funky, humorous, while that of her painter contemporaries looks, in retrospect, refined and somber. With three dimensions, there’s a merry, lively quality to Bourgeois’ creatures and icons.

The sawtooth freestanding sculptures, The Blind Leading the Blind, and C.O.Y.O.T.E., are engagingly menacing creatures, recalling centipedes with gigantism (shades of the movie The Beginning of the End) or the dragon’s scale motif from a kilim that is rendered dimensionally. The totems are installed as trees in a sacred forest. Their celebrated kinship with primitive icons, their position as insta-archaeology, doesn’t really hold when viewed in real life, mostly because they are painted in cheerful color—tomato red in The Blind Leading the Blind. The totems, weighted with concrete bases to keep them erect, have the effect more of human figures ready for disposal in the East River than of the allusive artifact freighted with ritual meaning. These slender totems seem theatrical, whimsical, perhaps because of the way they “populate” the gallery in a group.

The new piece in the installation, the prosceniumlike Partial Recall, is an elegant white painted-wood arrangement of receding and rounded steles, standing just above eye level. Looking up at this pristine and ordered assemblage is like beholding some celestial configuration in a place of worship; are these undulating waves of white wood clouds, tombstones, decorative scallops?

Partial Recall has the puritanical austerity of the whitewashed, married to a suggestive shape. Although I’m not a big fan of titles, I like this one because each row of scallops repeats the row preceding it. Bourgeois recalls memory, recalls evocative shapes.

Carrie Rickey