New York

 View of “Louise Bourgeois,” 2008, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Foreground: Spider Couple, 2003; Untitled, 2004; Untitled, 2004.

View of “Louise Bourgeois,” 2008, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Foreground: Spider Couple, 2003; Untitled, 2004; Untitled, 2004.

Louise Bourgeois


THE LOUISE BOURGEOIS RETROSPECTIVE at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York—an exhibition that premiered last year at Tate Modern in London—was a mammoth affair with some 150 works, a hundred of them large sculptures. The show began with the early “Femme Maison” (Woman House) series of the mid-1940s, opening on a modest scale that nevertheless reminded one of Bourgeois’s mythic status in art history. These quirky paintings depict different types of houses set upon female bodies—pedimented facade, clapboard colonial, gambrel barn, apartment tower—in a manner recalling the birdcage hats placed on window-display mannequins by several of the artist’s friends and acquaintances for the International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris in 1938. The affiliation between Bourgeois’s corpus and the abrupt discontinuities of the Exquisite Corpse, that consequential pastime of André Breton and others, underscores her Surrealist credentials—although she has often bridled at the inescapable connection. (The “Femme Maison” pieces also possess a droll shyness that recalls James Thurber’s woman-fearing cartoons as well as those of proximate date by William Steig.)

Indeed, the amazing catalogue to this huge retrospective—a comprehensive ABC of preferred persons, places, things, and themes from the artist’s life and career (edited by Tate Modern’s Frances Morris)—is a lexicon rich in references to the period just before the Second World War. These range from the sentimental—for example, the entry on Robert Goldwater, the artist’s late husband, with whom she came to the United States in 1938—to the factual, such as the entry detailing the artist’s education at six well-known Paris art schools of the day and her further studies with Marcel Gromaire, André Lhote, and Fernand Léger (rather an excess of period pedagogy, if you ask me).

Yet this powerful contextualization unfortunately only underscores the ways in which this retrospective was, for reasons incidental to either work or installation, quite dispiriting. Although photographs of the vibrant woman who ran away with Goldwater abounded, for instance, there was a notable absence of corresponding work from that period. Surely, there must be some prewar French material still out there, since this is the loam from which has grown so bounteous a harvest. The avowedly decorative strain in Bourgeois’s practice would have been provocatively underscored in the last gasp of Arts Déco typified by Paris Trente-Sept taste, a connection corroborated by her early studies with Paul Colin, the famed poster designer for Josephine Baker and La Revue Nègre. But for want of example, one simply wondered what Bourgeois’s Paris Trente-Sept material really looks like.

What we did see is that during the Eisenhower ice age, vulnerable, spindly structures emerged both in Bourgeois’s graphics—as in the suite of engravings titled He Disappeared into Complete Silence, 1947—and in the long series of sculptures called “Personages,” 1946–54. The latter began as wooden works whose elements were layered atop one another and skewered by a vertical spindle, thus allowing them a certain rotary freedom; some are winged, others pendulous. (Most of the “Personages” have now been cast in bronze, as was planned from the outset, Bourgeois’s initial desire to do so having been back-burnered back at the ouset owing to foundry costs far in excess of the artist’s then meager purse). For Bourgeois, the “Personages” are—they do not just represent—real persons encountered as if in conversation with one another. Responding to a query that likened their installation in groups to a cocktail party or vernissage, she once replied, “Oh yes. They turn around on their bases. They can look all around the room but usually they look at each other.” Though most “Personages” are untitled, some are given associative names; specific initials identify others, taggings that highlight the artist’s totemic anthropomorphism and hyperpersonal identification with her art.

The “Personages” correspond to the years of young motherhood (there would be three sons) when Bourgeois juggled several roles—artist, mother, and saloniste. In her latter guise, she received a set of New York Intellectuals quite different, in their seersucker, white-shoe restraint, from the cafeteria dialecticians usually conjured by the term. Bourgeois shared domestic responsibilities with her wry art-historian husband, the editor of the Magazine of Art, a progressive journal but one overshadowed by the bellicose Partisan Review. (Full disclosure: I met Goldwater at Queens College in 1953 when I was briefly his student.)

The Bourgeois-Goldwater set admitted many notables: Meyer Shapiro, the great art historian; Alfred H. Barr, chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art, whose wire-rimmed “repressed sexuality” Bourgeois found curiously arousing (see the catalogue entry “Barr, Alfred H.”); Marcel Duchamp; and several others from the Surrealist circles that Bourgeois frequented in her salad days, including the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who swans about in the extensive psychoanalytic exegeses to which the artist’s work so comfortably lends itself. There were also Front populaire emigrés, such as Léger and the utopian idealist Amédée Ozenfant. (Curiously, the catalogue’s abecedarium makes no mention of the artist’s account of being called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee during this cold-war period, which must have been a traumatic event, placing her in danger of deportation.)

Moving up the Frank Lloyd Wright ramp at the Guggenheim, one went past chapels and chambers abrim with Bourgeois’s labial, knifelike “Femme Couteau” (Knife Woman) series, the “Lairs,” and the “Labyrinths,” all begun in the ’60s. When we look back to such works, the congruency of Postminimalist and feminist stylistics grows ever more apparent: eccentric substances; gender-coded methods of sewing, skeining, and knitting; softness; theatricalization of private history; autobiographical narration. And there, at the center of this vast web of art and politics, Louise Bourgeois sat patiently, omni-eyed, a wary new generation of artists who had turned to her for sanction and license.

Her “Cells,” 1991–2008, families of “Spiders,” 1994–2003, and juju dolls made of cloth and tapestry crowned the artist’s recent years here. The sewn material especially incarnates the artist’s Elektra-like hatred of a tyrannical father. (Bourgeois, an Alice-in-Wonderland child born to a house of tapestry restorers and antiques dealers, despised her paterfamilias for subverting the rightful role of her compliant mother, placing the children’s governess and his mistress as head of household. Empathy for Clytemnestra and Gertrude still echo in these sewn fetishes.) But the retrospective concluded specifically with the “Cells,” 1991–2008, that coven of battered wooden doors, as well as other large, densely filled enclosures, some surrounded by metal screening. These intimidating sprawls recall the vitrines of Joseph Beuys (as much the shaman as Bourgeois) in which, at times, the German artist displayed esoteric, vaguely repulsive organic table scapes. Beuys’s cryptic “what goes where and next to what” vitrines parallel the alarming games of taste found in the “Cells”: Just where should the marble houses go, the body parts, the mechanical devices, the genital referents, nests, sphinxes, spiders, dolls, garments, furniture, mirrors—in short, where to place the varied players in the Bourgeois repertory theater? All this fabulism is part and parcel of the Bourgeois myth—intimate chatter now so overgrown as to obscure the art. But in our times, notoriety is also a grand achievement. So it will be ages before the artist’s gripping romance is leached away from the art to allow a clear assessment through born-again, virgin eyes.

My own trust in the work might not have collapsed so suddenly had the artist resisted her incrementally growing taste for bombast. While the various elements of her oeuvre are convincing as autonomous pieces, as floor shows of the House of Atreus they become Grand Guignol. This was ratified by a documentary shown during the run of the retrospective: La Rivière Gentille (The Gentle River), completed in 2007, the third in a trilogy devoted to the artist by Brigitte Cornand. The fi lm was shot in the artist’s Chelsea home over the past five years—that is, between her ninety-second and ninety-sixth year—and is meant to provide “an intimate picture of Bourgeois, which underscores the ongoing role of memory in her art,” as the invitation to the screening reads. Well, perhaps. How dismaying to hear, for example, the oh-so-delighted applause that greets the artist’s febrile recall of French nursery tunes. Equally painful is the reading aloud of Bourgeois’s oddly poetic and intensely visual notebooks and agendas, her echolalia-like lists used as prod to memory. The clumsy result is a record of art-world personalities both great and small seen humoring a very old and mythically powerful lady who remains her own best celebrity endorsement—provided the myth is not sabotaged, which this fi lm does in spades, though hardly with that intent in mind.

Let it be said that this disturbing shadow in no way intrudes upon that lioness’s share of Bourgeois’s work created up to the past decade, which has been immeasurably potent for a succession of cadet generations. It is merely otiose to float anew names such as Eva Hesse, Lynda Benglis, or Francesco Clemente. Still, it is with peculiar fascination that one reads the catalogue entry titled “Abstraction: L’Esprit géométrique,” by Robert Storr (a preeminent champion of the artist who also makes a cameo appearance as a reader in the revelatory film), which compares Bourgeois’s late work to that of Willem de Kooning, whose last works were shadowed by Alzheimer’s disease, a dementia that Storr was the first to reveal to the larger public. “Bourgeois,” he writes, “has not suffered such an inexorably debilitating illness, but if memory is assumed to be both the source of someone’s creative drive and their subject, what is left when that memory gradually fades or deserts them?” As Storr notes, it is the increased production of drawings, prints, and clothing pieces that seems to have supplanted the earlier practice—“the last two involving the collaboration of assistants, who work directly with her at home.”

This is far from sufficient information to quell unease. Rather, it serves as incitement. The retrospective as a whole suggested that the “Cells,” particularly, are answering a technological scale that betrays the feminist/Postminimalist nexus that was once so inspirational. Of course, the artist has employed professional assistance—fabricators, riggers, jobbers of all stamp—for decades now. In this she is as one with a myriad of artists. Yet standard studio practice in this case (generating her huge doors, immense metal enclosures, giant invented machines, and Rodinesque blocks of marble) becomes a kind of enormous production-oriented apparatus that may have transformed the scale of the artist’s work from intimacy to publicity.

But niceties of historiography and connoisseurship count for less as we draw further away from the subject at hand. Token nods may remain favoring Cubism, or Neo-classicism, or Guernica when speaking of Picasso, but it is also true that now all is more or less good, clear sailing, even for the once-reviled Late Works. Does anyone, even so shortly after the death of de Kooning, still cavil over the relative rankings of his successive periods? Even experts disagree. After a moment, once-burning distinctions dissipate, and the market—which is what remains along with the art—welcomes this lowering of the guard. The further away you get, the more of a piece it all becomes. This, too, will be Bourgeois’s lot (as it will be for all of us) when the shuffling off of mortal coils can no longer be deferred.

“Louise Bourgeois” was curated by Frances Morris of Tate Modern, Jonas Storsve of Centre Pompidou, and Marie-Laure Bernadac. The New York presentation was organized by Nancy Spector of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Robert Pincus-Witten is a contributing editor of Artforum.


A FRIEND RECENTLY told me of her visit to one of Louise Bourgeois’s salons a few years ago. Another guest had gifted Bourgeois a box of bonbons, which the Grande Dame had been enthusiastically sampling, covering herself and all she touched with chocolate in the process. My friend had taken a painting to show—a small gouache requiring close inspection—and suddenly Bourgeois made a grab for it. Facing the prospect of having her work amended with cocoa powder, my friend demurred, and finally a third party was recruited to hold the piece before Bourgeois’s eyes. But for the rest of the afternoon, no one would be entirely safe from Bourgeois’s caked brown fingers.

This is an anecdote that presents Bourgeois as I have always imagined her—taking hold of the world with hands dripping in luxury and squalor. She is the one who, hair unkempt, would parade through the streets of New York in the latex regalia of a dozen tits. She is the one who, in photographs, would direct her affectionate gaze down to her mutating sculpture as if it were a favorite pet. She is the one who would use a material as noble as marble, but only to sculpt and polish the stuff so that it might be easier for someone to fuck. Yes, I have always thought, she is in it, in everything, shamelessly relishing bodies and all their sloppy, ridiculous protuberances, their hooded members poking through silken mucus. This is the Louise Bourgeois who has inspired generations of artists (many of them women) who see in her wicked smile a beacon that leads toward artmaking at its most gorgeous and cruel.

Bourgeois is a towering figure who made herself so through acts and displays of intimacy: small sculptures demanding close, private looks; large sculptures that dwarf audiences, putting them in the place of children. Yet this play with scale necessarily presents a problem for installation, particularly in the vast spaces and compartmentalized ramps of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Upon entering the museum, one could barely see two interlocked spiders wrestling at a distance, obscured by milling crowds and backlight from the window. The only other pieces in the rotunda were the artist’s Untitled aluminum coils, 2004—an erudite choice, though not terribly sensitive to the operations of scale in her work. Reminiscent of the hanging Les Bienvenus (The Welcoming), pieces Bourgeois made for the park of Choisy-le-Roi in France in 1995, the vaguely excremental series of loops extended a perverse welcome to the museum visitor. Because the coils are each about the height of a person, however, they seemed dainty in the central space, like silver earrings dangling beside a concave cheek.

Some of the artist’s pieces likewise suffered the disadvantage that sculpture can face in the Guggenheim: The ramp often does not leave enough room for objects to be placed out among viewers with ease, so works are pushed against the walls, to be looked at from a frontal position rather than engaged through circumambulation. Cumul I, 1969, for example, needs to be in an open gallery space in order for us to perceive its striking ambiguity of scale. While Minimalist pieces (particularly those of Robert Morris) tend to operate in a literal size that hovers between that of architecture and traditional sculpture, relying upon a neutral gestalt to throw perceptual and contextual awareness back upon the viewer, Cumul I harnesses contradictory representational cues in order to play with scale. More lateral than vertical, it can read like a landscape, so the forms bubbling up seem like craters rendered in something less than actual size. Yet the sculpture’s biomorphism, as well as its persistent intrusion into the viewer’s space, nevertheless encourages one to compare Cumul I to the scale of the human body, in which case the rising tumescent shapes seem bigger than anything a person could muster. When one cannot fully look around the piece, it loses this complex valence.

The cordoning-off of works did not always sap them of their power, but it did alter their effects. The “Personages,” 1946–54—slender totems of human height that balance en pointe (their pointed ends were originally meant to be driven into the ground like stakes)—seem to have irrevocably lost the conditions of installation that they first enjoyed in the modest rooms of the Peridot Gallery in New York in 1949 and 1950. When they were initially exhibited, the sculptures were clustered and subsequently rearranged in different small groups, and viewers were invited to wander among them as one might mingle at a cocktail party. Such installations thus created a sacred yet social space, an interactive terrain in which a ghostly presence might seem at once otherwordly and casually familiar. Like her Woman with Packages, 1949—Bourgeois’s self-portrait as a “Personage,” in which drooping sacks around the hieratic figure’s waist suggest shopping bags (the sacks, in fact, represent her children), a version of which was included in the show—the “Personages” manage to capture a moment in which totemic eternity meets the quotidian now of modernity. These days, however, the “Personages” tend to be herded into an isolated zone and seen from afar so that the archetypal tone prevails; as a consequence, the forms remain wonderfully spooky and auratic, but definitely less personable.

Some of Bourgeois’s objects do well when they are given a boundary to rub up against, however. In one group of modestly sized pieces presented on a buffet-level vitrine, the curators managed to complement Bourgeois’s play with things that might typically operate in domestic or popular contexts. Encased in glass, her latex and plaster Soft Landscape, 1963, for example, looked like it was ready for sale at Claes Oldenburg’s Store under the name Cheeseburger. Her Molotov Cocktail, 1968, a rounded dark cylinder with a sort of nipple on the side, could take its place among other works that were testing the overlap between art and protest that same year, such as Barnett Newman’s Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley. Looking more industrial than is typical in Bourgeois’s oeuvre, the metal Molotov Cocktail is also an exercise in disobedient design. It is of the right size and general shape to be a martini shaker (Molotov cocktails can be, as any revolutionary knows, as intoxicating as they are dangerous), but it seems far too heavy for anyone to imagine shaking it; there is no flat end on which it can rest, so it would roll away if that nipple didn’t serve as a sort of kickstand. Like the Femme Couteau (Knife Woman) pieces, 1969–2002, and a host of others for which Bourgeois is famous, this object dares us to use it, and promises disturbing results for anyone who actually does.

Just as seductive and treacherous are Bourgeois’s larger installations from the 1970s wherein tables seemingly laden with viscera are surrounded by elusive figures. Bourgeois productively gleaned the kitsch of Catholic ritual for The Destruction of the Father, 1974, which turns her cannibalistic fantasy of a family eating its father into a sort of Last Supper tableau, with lumpen stalagmites draped in black velvet surrounding the table. All is bathed in a reddish light that warms the ordeal like a heat lamp. In enticing viewers to smirk at the high drama, Bourgeois ropes the audience into her sadism (and maybe even into some guilt for giggling at the Eucharist). Confrontation, 1978, made viewers even more complicit in such irreverent theatricality, as onlookers were originally invited to sit in odd wooden wedges and gaze at one another across latex carcasses on an ultramarine velvet gurney. Videos in the exhibition document the fashion shows Bourgeois had set up around the central table, in which men and women clad in the artist’s multimammary outfits lurched and vamped. The ringing weirdness of these works serves as an invigorating counter to other, more affirmative dinner parties in feminist art; unlike Judy Chicago, Bourgeois didn’t set her tables with porcelain monuments to womanly achievement, preferring instead the corrupted leftovers of desire.

The exuberance and humor threatened to fade as one ascended to the upper two ramps of the Guggenheim’s spiral, which was top-heavy with Bourgeois’s “Cells,” 1991–2008. Their dilapidated doors enclose moody accumulations of antiquated objects. Yellowing cloth embroidered with proclamations such as ART IS THE GUARANTEE OF SANITY drapes the interiors, lending the works a Delphic tone. Body fragments and melancholy gray surfaces round it all up under the rubric of allegory. For all the scholarship that has sought to salvage these installations as parables of mediated memory, beneath Bourgeois’s bric-a-brac of the psyche can lurk an all-too-stable referent—grounded in the familiar narrative of Bourgeois’s traumatic childhood and cemented according to popular convention in which artistic expression equals personal pain (see the reproduction of Bourgeois’s childhood home with a guillotine threatening it like the sword of Damocles). As such, these works are in perpetual danger of flattening allegory into symbol. If they are saved from such a fate, however, it is by their very extravagance, the sheer shameless heaping-up of lost meaning (another dead body on the table) and its operatic presentation. Here is the final confrontation Bourgeois offers today: As onlookers crane their necks to peer through doors at piles of the past, they are asked to think about what might happen to personal memory when it has slipped, finally, into art-historical legend.

“Louise Bourgeois” was curated by Frances Morris of Tate Modern, Jonas Storsve of Centre Pompidou, and Marie-Laure Bernadac. The New York presentation was organized by Nancy Spector of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The show is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, through Jan. 25, 2009; it travels to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, Feb. 26–May 17, 2009.

Sarah K. Rich is an associate professor of art history at Pennsylvania State University.