Louise Bourgeois: L for Labyrinth, B for Beauty

French-American artist Louise Bourgeois is the woman behind more than 3,000 works of art including sketches, prints, jewelry, sculptures in wood, fabric, plaster, and rubber, as well as her monumental spiders. A coffee-table book designed in the style of a glossary has been published by Rizzoli to commemorate the career of the woman known as the “lioness of contemporary art.”

From her first steps with the Parisian Surrealists in the 1930s to her international triumph during the 1990s, Louise Bourgeois’ career spanned more than 75 years. She moved to New York to be with her American husband in 1938, and spent the rest of her life in the city. And despite becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1955, she never lost her cheeky Parisian accent. After working as an art teacher at Brooklyn College and the Pratt Institute, she became an artist herself and began painting before creating sculptures influenced by Giacometti and Le Corbusier.

However, recognition was a long time coming. Louise Bourgeois was 71 when the world’s museums began organizing retrospectives of her work. She then received the National Medal of Arts from Bill Clinton in 1997, and the Légion d’Honneur from Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008. The artist passed away two years later at the age of 98 and is buried in Cutchogue Cemetery in Long Island.

The spider sculpture is one of Louise Bourgeois’ most iconic pieces of work, and there are several versions exhibited in France and the United States. In Bentonville, Arkansas, a creature 30 feet high towers over the courtyard at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Visitors have their photos taken under the eight bronze legs before going into the museum. The animal is named Maman (“Mom”), in reference to the artist’s mother who died of the Spanish flu when she was 21. The web-weaving spider is another nod to her mother and her work as an ancient tapestry restorer in Choisy-le-Roi, south of Paris. Louise Bourgeois first discovered her artistic side in her family’s workshop by drawing the patterns her mother used for weaving.

C FOR CHELSEA On Sunday afternoons, Louise Bourgeois hosted various guests at her home at 347 West 20th Street in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. She received students, artists, journalists, and curators who would come to present their work to her. “The experience could be quite brutal,” says French photographer Dominique Nabokov, who lived next door. “Woe betide anyone who expected compliments or polite encouragement. Her pithy questions were quite fearsome! There was an atmosphere of almost religious adoration that infused these Sunday meetings.”


Louise Bourgeois’ living room, in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York, in 1997.
© Dominique Nabokov

F FOR (THE DESTRUCTION OF THE) FATHER In 1974, Louise Bourgeois used her art to sacrifice her father, a violent, humiliating, unpredictable figure. The resulting installation was titled The Destruction of the Father. In a morose interior space bathed in red light, viewers can make out a table on which dismembered body parts have been arranged. The tyrant is dead; his wife and children have killed and eaten him. The artist’s hatred for her father influenced her entire career. “It was my specialty,” she said. “I made fun of fathers. I tried to ridiculize them. La Rochefoucauld said ‘Le ridicule tue.’ And this is what I was trying to do. Eliminate them.” Her sculpture Fillette (1968) portrays a phallus hung from the ceiling by a butcher’s hook. She even posed with the plaster and latex member under her arm for the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe!

W FOR WOMAN Women are central to the artist’s work, featured topped with a roof in the Femme Maison drawings, naked and willowy in the Femme Couteau sculptures, and pregnant in The Reticent Child. But Louise Bourgeois refused the role as a feminist leader others tried to associate with her. She campaigned alongside Lee Krasner and Hedda Sterne in the 1940s, demanding that more contemporary artists — and women in particular — be exhibited in American museums. However, she rejected the feminism of the 1960s.

D FOR DEATH Each death marked a new chapter in Louise Bourgeois’ life and work, including the passing of her mother in 1932, her father in 1951, her husband in 1973, and her son Michel in 1990. She purchased and renovated a hundred-year-old house on Staten Island for her son, but the residence remained unoccupied until it became a work of art in itself, named Maison Vide. “It is a beautiful house, but there is no soul in it,” said the artist. “Outside the house is beautiful: it tries to look upright and strong, but inside it is deserted, there is nothing left, as the house has been abandoned by life itself. So, it represents mourning, whether mourning for the mother, the father, or just a good friend.”

N FOR NEW YORK In September 1938, Louise Bourgeois married American art historian Robert Goldwater and moved to be with him in New York, where she stayed until her death in 2010. She took classes at the Art Students League in Manhattan, and her husband introduced her to members of the American intelligentsia and exiled European intellectuals. In 1945, Louise Bourgeois then presented 12 paintings at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery on East 41st Street for her first personal exhibition.

P FOR “PERSONAGES” Louise Bourgeois began sculpting with wood on the roof of the apartment she shared with her husband and three children on the Lower East Side. Her work mimics the landscape, the buildings, water towers, and antennas surrounding her. Portrait of Jean-Louis (1947-1949) portrays her son as a white, window-strewn skyscraper. Portrait of C.Y. (1947-1949) depicts a pile of books, and Figure (1954) features an enormous needle. This series of totems was nicknamed “Personages,” and represented many of the artist’s loved ones in France while helping her deal with homesickness. In 1951, the MoMA acquired one of these balsa wood sculptures, Sleeping Figure, for its permanent collection.

R FOR RETROSPECTIVE The first American retrospective focused on Louise Bourgeois was hosted at the MoMA in 1982. It was the first time a female sculptor had been the subject of such an exhibit. On weekends, the 71-year-old artist wandered through the rooms, listened to visitors’ conversations, and moved her works around. “I’m the artist,” she would say to the security staff if they tried to stop her. The Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris also held a retrospective for her in 1995.

S FOR STUDIO Following her husband’s death in 1973, Louise Bourgeois remodeled their house in Chelsea and reserved the four floors for her creations. The brick building has remained in its original condition since the artist passed away. The basement — transformed into a studio — still contains a sewing machine and two printing presses. “Dresses and coats hang in the closet,” wrote The New York Times after a visit in 2016. “Magazines and diaries fill the bookshelves, which display the breadth of Bourgeois’ interests, including The Joy of Cooking, The Bhagavad Gita, and J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories.” Work is underway to transform the house into a museum.

=> Louise Bourgeois edited by Frances Morris, Rizzoli Electa, 5 March 2019. 320 pages, 45 dollars.


Article published in the February 2019 issue of France-Amérique

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