New York

Louise Bourgeois

The daily practice of making marks—rhythmically, methodically, filling the page without considering meaning beyond the act itself—is a hallmark of studio practice. For some, the inscribed habit of drawing functions as a warm-up exercise; for others, its simplicity not only formalizes the idea of beginning again each day but strikes at the heart of an artist’s concerns. In her recent exhibition of sculptures and multiple series of abstract drawings titled “The Reticent Child,” Louise Bourgeois addressed both concerns with stunning results.

It is noteworthy that Bourgeois has hardly left her New York City townhouse for a decade, a circumstance that compares on some small scale with what was known during the Nazi rule of Germany as “the inner migration,” a reference to those “degenerate” artists who continued to make art in secret in their homes in spite of the proscription against it. Bourgeois’s own recalcitrance is legendary, encompassing her astounding longevity and lucidity as well as a retinue of provocative figural sculptures and narrative drawings that shock and titillate with their obsessive fixation on sex and taboo.

“The Reticent Child” includes a host of fabric sculptures—in addition to the actual “reticent child” fabricated in marble—that address the themes of pregnancy, childbirth, and alienation within the context of family relations. With the exception of one pregnant, armless, fabric sculpture that hangs suspended in midair, the ensemble of players is mirrored in a polished aluminum backdrop that distorts its reflection and transforms its pedestal into an eerie theatrical proscenium. In the wake of these sculptures and the dramas they recount, Bourgeois began to make abstract drawings, producing hundreds upon hundreds with sizzling intensity.

In these small pieces, one impassioned line begets another and another in a loosely systematic style, their numbers filling page after page (and occasionally spilling onto the verso) with a dense gestural scrawl. Crisscrossed woven lines, hatching of all sorts, sets of radiating parallel diagonals, circular chains, blobs and dashes, oval repetitions (like fingerprints, vaginas, or targets), and more—mostly in reds and blues and ranging from delicate to deliberate—relentlessly cover page after page. The effect is pulsating and kinetic. Open meshes and shaky irregular grids; families of zigzag, toothlike marks; lines that swim and sway in wild variation—nothing is the same in this exuberant geometry, but everything is related. Many motifs suggest tribal influences; remember, Bourgeois’s husband was Robert Goldwater, whose studies on “primitivism” and modern art set the benchmark for scholarship on the subject. He’s been gone a very long time, but it’s likely he’s no more distant for Bourgeois than is her own childhood. Those memories underwrite the abstract drawings with a crudeness that is reminiscent of a child’s hand and a freedom that bespeaks the wisdom of an old pro.

Ten years ago, Bourgeois suffered from extended bouts of sleeplessness and put her nocturnal wakefulness to use in “The Insomnia Drawings,” 1994–95, a diaristic series of 220 abstract works on paper that fused clusters and repetitions of marks and centered on a habitual means of locating oneself within a space not to think but simply to be. The wealth of abstract drawings that have poured into that space in “The Reticent Child” show us a way to turn life back on itself in defiance of the burdens it throws our way, from family trauma to the loss of loved ones to the complications of deep old age. At ninety-three, Bourgeois is just hitting her stride.

Jan Avgikos