Louise Bourgeois

On  31  May  2010,  Louise  Bourgeois,  one  of  the  most  inventive and influential artists of the last century, died  in  New  York  at  the  age  of  98.  While  she  had  waited a long time for due recognition as an artist, the formal rigour and affective potency of Bourgeois’ work eventually  served  to  establish  her  as  a  crucial  model  for innumerable artists seeking to explore the relationship between art and psychic life.
Born  in  Paris  on  Christmas  Day  1911,  Bourgeois’  childhood was notoriously troubled, and many (not least  the  artist  herself)  have  viewed  her  art  as  a  working through of familial conflicts and dramas. Her father’s  repeated  infidelities  and  tyrannical  domination of the household provided the narrative support for her disturbing tableau, The Destruction of the Father  (1974):  ‘What  frightened  me  was  that  at  the dinner table, my father would go on and on, showing  off,  agrandizing  himself.  And  the  more  he  showed off, the smaller we felt. Suddenly there was a terrific tension, and we grabbed him – my brother, my sister, my mother – the three of us grabbed him and pulled him onto the table and pulled his legs and arms apart  –  dismembered  him’.  By  contrast,  Bourgeois’ mother  Joséphine,  who  repaired  and  sold  medieval  and Renaissance tapestries for a living, was a figure of both identification and admiration; she was, Bourgeois wrote  in  1995,  ‘deliberate,  clever,  patient,  soothing,  reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider. She could also defend herself, and me’.
Growing  up  in  Surrealist  Paris  in  the  1920s  and  ’30s,  Bourgeois eventually left France for New York in 1938 with  the  man  she  had  recently  married,  the  art  historian Robert Goldwater. Her first solo exhibition took place in New York in 1945, and she continued to exhibit work throughout the late­‐1940s and early ’50s. After  1953,  however,  she  did  not  exhibit  alone  again  for 11 years. During the 1960s Bourgeois experimented  with  organic  forms  and  unstable  materials such as latex and rubber. She showed this new work at the Stable Gallery in 1964, and again as part  of  Lucy  Lippard’s  important  1966  exhibition,  Eccentric Abstraction. For Lippard, the work she presented  offered  an  alternative  to  ‘dead‐set  Minimalism’, revealing a kind of excessive materiality that  exposed  Minimalism’s  underbelly  –  all  the  sexuality, contingency and formlessness that the latter sought  to  repress,  or  so  it  then  seemed.  Bourgeois,  together with younger artists such as Eva Hesse and Yayoi  Kusama,  became  extremely  important  in  developing a sculptural language that could insistently figure  the  body  –  its  part  objects,  its  drives,  its  convulsions – without straightforwardly illustrating or depicting  it.  Bourgeois’  cloth  and  latex  sculpture  Le  Regard (1966), for example, offers a model of seeing that  is  both  subject  to  and  driven  on  by  unconscious  forces of desire and aggression.
Active  in  various  ways  within  the  feminist  movement  during the 1970s, and exhibiting her sculptures extensively towards the end of the decade, Bourgeois’ status  as  a  major  international  artist  was  confirmed  when, in 1982, she became the first woman to be given  a  retrospective  at  New  York’s  Museum  of  Modern Art. Both the subversive potential of Bourgeois’  work  and  her  charismatic  persona  were  emblematized in Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous portrait  of  the  artist  carrying  her  phallic  sculpture  Fillette under her arm, and wearing a broad, irreverent grin on her face. The reverberations of that laughter, directed  so  brilliantly  against  various  forms  of  power  and authority, are still being felt today. Indeed, scholars such as Mignon Nixon have demonstrated the importance  of  Bourgeois’  artistic  matrilineage  for  contemporary practitioners, exposure to her work having  been  formative  for  artists  such  as  Kiki  Smith,  Rachel Whiteread and Dorothy Cross, for example.
In 1989, and at the age of 77 it is worth remembering, Bourgeois  began  to  produce  the  kind  of  large‐scale  sculptural installations for which she would become best  known.  Throughout  the  ’90s  she  explored  the  potential of these charged environments – the Cells – which  draw  the  viewer  into  psychologically  intense  scenarios of trauma and fantasy. In her Red Rooms (1994),  for  example,  laden  memories  seem  to  have  been directly inscribed into its weathered surfaces; the  affective  intensity  of  familial  bonds  embodied  in  its arresting colour; fearful and fantasized narratives distilled into a few fetish objects and symbols; and the heavy  materials  of  inner  life  deposited  into  various  smokey vessels.
Such  is  the  scope  of  Bourgeois’  achievement  that  a  whole history of art since Surrealism could be told through  her  work,  a  claim  that  cannot  be  made  for  many artists.