New York

Louise Bourgeois

What can one say about Louise Bourgeois but that she is master of her form and mistress of her passions? Now ninety, Bourgeois has been making art for nearly three-quarters of a century, executing drawings in her parents' tapestry-restoration atelier in Paris in the '20s and studying with Léger in the '30s. This was her first New York solo show in almost a decade, though last summer's exhibition with Yayoi Kusama at Peter Blum was one of the year's highlights. The new work is large, comedic, disturbing, beautiful. The intimately psychoanalytic content of her sculpture has often been remarked—yet her pursuit of unalloyed expression and her fierce involvement with her materials has let her slip past solipsism to get at something like universal truth.

The fourteen sculptures here clustered into four types (all works but one 2001): There were two large tableaux of objects, C'est le murmure de l'eau qui chante (It's the murmur of water that sings) and Cell XXV (The View of the World of the Jealous Wife), and three sets or subsets containing items constructed of stuffed, sewn fabric. Of the latter, several are reminiscent of the columnar, totemic “personnages” Bourgeois made in the '40s and '50s, while others present some of the most directly figurative statements offered yet by an artist profoundly concerned with the emblems and contours of the body.

C'est le murmure de l'eau qui chante constructs a synesthesia of seeing and hearing. A tall freestanding mirror of polished metal loomed before two rough wooden chairs: the mirror's concave surface threw back a fun-house image of the spectator. Beguiled by the altered likeness, the visitor almost forgot to sit. But sitting was key, because the mirror also functioned acoustically, catching and amplifying sound from small wall-mounted speakers. From the seated position, the recording, a singsong “murmur” in Bourgeois's own voice, seemed to fill the space. Quavery and light, the voice was childlike in pitch but also burnished, rough, palpably that of an elderly woman. As a portrait of presence and disappearance, the piece is piercing yet almost giddy.

Not so CellXXV: two female torsos and a bust, dressed '40s style, in a circular steel cage, their “jealousy” directed either at one another or at the liminal effigy of the “husband”—two enormous marble balls on the cage's floor. Abandonment, obsession, and erotic partnership also infuse the fabric sculptures. Pillars of closely fitted, pillowlike shapes,the group of “personnages” looks simultaneously soft and hard, their muted colors—pink, blue, yellow, brown—faintly earthy, faintly corporeal. In their tragicomic mix of abject and monumental, the six entities suggested a social or family gathering, while the triptych Obese, Bulimic, Anorexic and the sculpture Rejection addressed the state of being alone. Minutely detailed (though lacking arms), the female “body-image” trio are sewn in a dark pink material and isolated in separate vitrines—voluptuous, Venus of Willendorf-ish version and an emaciated figure flanked a thin one with grotesquely protruding stomach and stuck-out tongue. Rejection, also locked in its own vitrine, is a life-size head patchworked in what looks like yellow-and-white terry cloth. The anguished open mouth is liked in red. Like Frans Hals's Malle Babbe or Caravaggio's Medusa, the head evinces an archetypal female rage, a grief inseparable from power and in this polyvalence somehow enticing, somehow free.

Embodying similar emotional amalgams was a quartet of sewn-fabric male/ female pairs hanging from the ceiling. Each twenty-inch-high embracing Couple twirled in a slow, ungrounded dance. Matching fabrics and Frankenstein-style seams suggested not united wholes but erotic love as a paradoxical merging of fragments. As Thomas McEvilley has written of Bourgeois, “The emphasis on gender duality is a cosmogram.” Male and female, father and mother, aggression and vulnerability, absurdity as funny and/or existentially profound: All appeared here, brought together through attention to the properties of metal, stone, wood, cloth, and the methodical facture of needlework and song.

Frances Richard