New York

Louise Bourgeois

Brooklyn Museum

What are the main currents of contemporary art? And what artists serve as the most visible and influential conduits for these currents? These are the questions raised by the Brooklyn Museum’s recent exhibition “Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory, Works 1982–1993.” As a retrospective, albeit a partial one, the show took Bourgeois’ stature as a fait accompli. But the reasons for Bourgeois’ significance given by the show’s curator and selected catalogue essayists were often at odds with the evidence of the art—what we saw and what we were told to see in Bourgeois’ art didn’t match up.

Curator Charlotta Kotik’s catalogue essay begins perspicuously: “However intricate the elaborate construct of the art world may be at any given moment, its existence and renewal depend on a select number of sources. These sources, sometimes obscured by extraneous concerns, often take a long time to be identified. Yet, once recognized, their creative energy penetrates our consciousness and permanently marks our perception of the times.” Kotik then goes on to position Bourgeois as a forerunner—one of that select number of obscured sources, it would seem—for the art world’s current infatuation with installations and the thematics of the body. She suggests a rending of the veil, a scene of recognition.

Yet Kotik relates Bourgeois’ biography, and connects it to the development of her art, without really trying to put the work in historical perspective and suggest what its own sources might be. We learn, for example, that Bourgeois, who arrived in New York from France in 1938, befriended “a number of expatriate Surrealist artists during the Second World War,” but never who they were or what, if any, influence they might have exerted on her art. Kotik also alludes to Bourgeois’ connections with the New York School, Minimalism, and Process art, but merely within the space of a single sentence. “She readily comprehended all,” Kotik writes, “but accepted none. Fiercely independent, she charted her own territory instead, traveling a solitary path and sustaining the isolation that so frequently attends such a road.” Fierce independence, solitude, refusal, the road less traveled: it all sounds very romantic, and rather less like art history than a teenage mash note.

And what did we see in “The Locus of Memory”? A heterogeneous collection of artworks, some of them discrete objects, others multipart installations. The formal variety of Bourgeois’ work is sufficient to suggest it was made by more than one artist, yet the persistence of certain motifs, and an overarching mood pitched between longing and dread, reinforces the impression of a signature style. The imagery is quite consistent: on the one hand we have abstract-ish biomorphs suggestive of breasts, penises, and vaginas; on the other, straightforwardly representational renderings of eyes and ears, or of disembodied limbs. The settings created by the installations are drab and claustrophobic, somehow evocative of unwilling, unhappy confinement. As the title of the exhibition suggested, the works tend to point backward to an irretrievable yet inescapable past, to childhood sexuality and familial trauma. Haunted interiors, sexual indeterminacy, the logic of dreams: surely these thematic and figurative topoi have an identifiable art-historical subsoil—in Surrealism. Or are we to believe that Bourgeois created them out of thin air?

Even so, Kotik’s essay is on the whole the least troublesome of the lot. Terrie Sultan’s text is even less helpful in situating Bourgeois historically. “Louise Bourgeois’ aesthetic stands as a counterproposal to the optimistic and nihilistic approaches that remain the hallmarks of Modernism at the end of the twentieth century,” Sultan grandiosely begins. Then, in a single magisterially turgid sentence, she proceeds to sunder Bourgeois not only from the “misogynistic antihumanism” of Surrealism, but also from Cubism, Minimalism, and appropriation art. Why stop here? Probably Bourgeois is no less untainted by Russian Constructivism, German Expressionism, and de Stijl. The gist is clear: Louise Bourgeois stands alone, with neither progenitors nor peers.

Sultan prefaces her essay with a quotation from the artist: “People misunderstand my work. I am not a surrealist; I am an existentialist.” Prostrate before the figure of the artist, Sultan simply takes this statement at face value, without ever considering that Bourgeois might have strategic reasons for wishing to dissociate herself publicly from a movement from which she obviously takes a great deal. Aside from the friendships with émigré Surrealists that Kotik mentions, formal and thematic traces of Surrealism are all over the sculptures and installations in “The Locus of Memory.” Not only is the influence there, patently, in the work, it is in fact the most interesting thing about Bourgeois’ art.

I would even suggest that Bourgeois is influential among installation- and“body”-oriented artists today precisely because she so forcefully transmits the legacy of Surrealism, which is, perhaps surprisingly, the most potent of historical avant-gardes among the current generation of artists. Consider the current ascendancy of Kiki Smith, or of Robert Gober—does a leg sticking out of a vagina sound like anything other than Surrealism? Artists such as these are contemporary totems, purveyors of the metaphorical, weird, “shocking,” dreamy temperament of the moment. Bourgeois’ influence on their work is unmistakable.

Is it really so bad to admit Bourgeois’ sources, let alone to explore them? Apparently so. The curators of “The Locus of Memory” seem intent on inscribing her within a very old-fashioned history of art, one of great originals, solitary innovators, form-givers—really, despite all the feminist lip-service, within the great history of men. Against all odds, Bourgeois has to be preserved as yet another example of the lone genius, bucking the system, rejecting tradition, doing it all for himself and posterity. To a degree, the artist’s self-presentation neatly colludes with that of the curators. (Perhaps the most revealing illustration in the catalogue is Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait of Bourgeois smiling confidently and toting one of her sculptures—an enormous latex phallus; one need never have read a word of Lacan to divine the import of this particular image.) But might it not have been desirable to investigate the uses of this particular self-mythologization for her? The essayists remain intent on the romance. Once again, as with the “I-am-not-a-Surrealist” business, everything is taken at face value.

We might wish to stop here, but there is yet another contributor to the Bourgeois mythography proposed by the Brooklyn Museum. And so we move from the mediocrity of Kotik and Sultan to Christian Leigh, whose essay “The Earrings of Madame B . . . : Louise Bourgeois and the Reciprocal Terrain of the Uncanny” represents a new low in museum publications, and yet another exemplum for those who maintain, too often correctly, that art criticism is the most debased form of “elevated” writing imaginable. There is no purpose in rehearsing Leigh’s arguments—unlike Kotik and Sultan, he makes none. Instead, we are treated to a series of inane assertions and references that do nothing to situate Bourgeois and everything to compromise her reputation. In Leigh’s first paragraph alone we read of Surrealism, Symbolism, William Carlos Williams, Odilon Redon, “orthodox Marxism,” “the specious mother tongue of Postmodern discourse,” “catastrophic realism,” Wim Wenders, Frank Gehry, Slavoj Zizek, William Shakespeare, and Jacques Lacan. After this frog-throated aria Leigh moves on to poor Bourgeois: “Rising like a proud, pristine phoenix in a Pasolini opera from the ashes of the past, overcoming obstacles as mighty as deconstruction and as petty as simulation, Bourgeois reigns supreme, and her subjects do not (and cannot) hide their worship, for her stamp is all over their works as brazenly as so often their politics are written on their black crepe Comme des Garçons sleeves.” All of which is plainly, utterly, incontrovertibly meaningless. The ahistorical and uncritical hero worship that discreetly underlies and undermines the essays of Kotik and Sultan emerges here in gaudily unapologetic form as pure stupidity. With friends like these. . . .

David Rimanelli is a frequent contributor to Artforum and The New Yorker.