Louise Bourgeois

It is well known by now how allusions to corporality, in particular to sexuality, have become increasingly explicit in Louise Bourgeois’ work. Rarely, however, has this aspect been so generally apparent as in the artist’s recent show in Milan, her first solo exhibition at an Italian institution. The materials she worked with were in large measure fabrics and clothing, confirming her uninhibited and innovative use of items. The selection began with two 1997 pieces: Single III, a sort of hermaphroditic mannequin with two heads and no arms, and Arched Figure No. 3, reminiscent of Bourgeois’ 1993 US Pavilion installation for the Venice Biennale, Arch of Hysteria. If that piece depicts, to paraphrase the artist, a body crossed by a felicitous if ambiguous feeling, poised between pain and pleasure, these two more recent works seem imbued with a marked sense of the macabre. Made of fabric with much of the stitching exposed, large and swollen like oversized puppets, both pieces were exhibited inside glass cases as if they were museum specimens; another piece, Single I, appeared as a desecrated corpse. Even within the context of Bourgeois’ sculptural language, these pieces constituted a grotesque variation on her always alienating oeuvre.

The Couple II, also partially made from fabric and enclosed within a showcase, evoked the psychoanalytic phantasm of the primal scene, serving as a reminder that Bourgeois’ work always functions as an ongoing exorcism of the past. The artist reiterates this point in the exhibition catalogue: “A lot of people are so obsessed by the past, they die of it. . . . You cannot arrest the present. You just have to abandon every day your past. And accept it. And if you can’t accept it, then you have to recreate it. Which is what I have been doing.” The notion that Bourgeois’ work must be seen as fragments of a diary aspiring to reconstitute a negated subjectivity is affirmed in Untitled, 1996, in which the artist’s own clothing (some dating from the ’40s) hangs on rods connected to metal posts. The supporting structure alludes simultaneously to coat hangers, merry-go-rounds, and gallows; cruelty and sensuality, characteristics typical of Bourgeois’ work, mingle here in potent equilibrium.

Sensuality is evoked by fabric stuffed with soft materials, underwear, and elongated, biomorphic, brown and pink rubber shapes. Cruelty is suggested by the animal bones on which undergarments are hung, or in the large tree root (Untitled, 1996), to which the artist added, in perfectly shaped wood, a human hand. Hung from the structure along with other organic forms, the root displays a cut that immediately brings to mind a decapitation, as well as a monstrous corpse. Reminiscent of certain Surrealist images, this work demonstrates, most efficaciously, how the subtle ambiguity of Bourgeois’ language can achieve results of almost overwhelming expressiveness.

In the spools of thread in In respite, 1993, sewing becomes a quiet metaphor for restoration and forgiveness. By contrast, in Cells (Clothes), 1996, Bourgeois’ themes are amplified to the point of becoming a habitable space, with circular boundaries delimited by old doors, brimming with objects, as in a warehouse of memory or an oneiric Wunderkammer. The double-edged title signifies both the building block of an organism and a prison, and this installation can likewise be taken as protective or isolating. Here the work’s interior could only be glimpsed through cracks in the doors, and the presence of clothing, hung on metal structures or resting on chairs, assigned the viewer the shameful role of Peeping Tom.

The exhibition reached a crescendo in the largest and final room of the Fondazione Prada, with four welded-steel pieces featuring the maternal symbol of the spider, an image to which Bourgeois has increasingly turned since 1993. One spider was attached to the ceiling while two larger arachnoids—one of which guarded marmoreal eggs enclosed in a web—lay in the shadows, ready to spring. A fourth was created for this exhibition: a mother spider crouched above a cell with walls of metal caging that allowed the spectator to see various objects—brooches, watches, crystal spheres, and elaborate, decaying wall tapestries that seemed to cling to the caging. The humble, ephemeral materials (such as clothing and underwear) and deliberately coarse items (e.g., heavy cloth) depart from the subtle refinement emphasized in certain recent marble and glass pieces. The staging of such harsh immediacy made this show one of the most memorable in Milan this year. The exhibition confirmed the general sense that Bourgeois’ recent work represents the strongest in her long career, a view shared in curators Jerry Gorovoy and Pandora Tabatabai Asbaghi’s largely biographical catalogue. Here, the artist’s words, punctuated by family photographs and images of her work, read with all the passion of a good novel.

Giorgio Verzotti is a frequent contributor to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.