New York

Louise Bourgeois

Robert Miller Gallery

Few exhibitions have the force of emotional necessity of this show of drawings by Louise Bourgeois. Spanning nearly half a century—from 1939 to ’87—these 179 works include preparatory studies for sculptures and paintings as well as independent drawings. Although enormously varied in approach (as well as in the materials employed), they debunk much of the mystique still adhering to the notion of drawn “touch.” For what astonishes the viewer of these remarkably disciplined and controlled works is the tremulous vision of the human psyche to which they attest.

The exhibition began with a series of willfully childlike, “naïf”-style drawings executed in 1939 and the early ’40s. These register primitive fantasies, as in the drawing with the Picassoesque split head that describes a child’s vision of being swallowed whole by its elders. These works of the early ’40s display marks of Surrealism, such as metamorphic form and pictographic formats, but the imagery and mode of rendering already bear Bourgeois’ own individual cast. Here, we witness the emergence of a unique feminine vision in which woman is seen either as a thin, frail, polelike figure, graphically pitted against a background of hostile elements or malevolent forces, or protectively curled in upon herself in nesting, cocoonlike forms. Bourgeois’ key themes—the “femme maison” (“woman house”), with its compendium of interior spaces, and the “femme fleur” (“woman flower”), with its tightly folded petals—make their appearances in this decade. Many images focus on fecundity, as in the drawings in which linear sticks or poles support pendulous forms—multiple breasts or multiple seeds—or in which the seed lodges securely in the center, protected by an external coating. Woman is presented here as either self-protecting and protective of others, or vulnerable and exposed—equivocally polelike or impaled on poles. Bourgeois makes much of this theme of feminine suffering. Why else would a blood-red stick figure on pink paper from 1947 be called Ste. Sebastienne (with the French feminine ending)?

In one of the notes in Louise Bourgeois: Drawings, Bourgeois writes of verticality that it is “an attempt to escape,” hinting at the nervous, psyche-ridden impetus of many of these images. Intimations of contortion are present in some of the explicitly female forms shaped out of skeins of yarn or rope, at once gracefully curved and violently twisted. Many images invoke the solace of repetition, as in the group of drawings from the early ’50s in which the iteration of black ink lines evokes landscapes, waves of water, or cascades of hair. These repetitive impulses are elaborated in the sharp chromatic drawings of the mid and late ’60s, many of which are studies for Bourgeois’ noted sculpture series, the “Cumuls,” 1966–68. In this half-century survey we sense the potency of a complex and distinctive vision, expressed with graphic incisiveness.

Kate Linker