This past weekend, the art world took a collective breath as it was informed of the death of a titan, French-American artist Louise Bourgeois. At the age of 98, Bourgeois had accomplished an impressive sixty-year career which, at the time of her death, was continuing to gain momentum.
Bourgeois was born December 25, 1911 in Paris, France where her artistic career started as a young child participating in her family business of tapestry restoration. She attended the Sorbonne in the 1930s, at the height of the Surrealist movement and studied in the workshop of Fernand Léger. In 1938, Bourgeois moved to New York with her husband, American Robert Goldwater (an art historian who specialized in tribal art), and again found herself in the epicenter of the artistic avant-garde, interacting with not only the European artists who were in exile from WWII, but also with the Abstract Expressionists who were claiming the spotlight. From there, Bourgeois was front and center for the subsequent artistic movements that were to follow: Pop Art, Pluralism, Identity Politics, Body Art, Feminist Art and Post-Modernism. Yet, Bourgeois’ work could never be defined as belonging to one. Rather, her work was able to incorporate aspects of all and, working in a variety of mediums, able to elevate into an entirely new category all on its own.
Bourgeois culled her childhood history and personal life as subject matter, and her works were riffed with what we can now categorize as Freudian and Lacanian theory. Growing up in Choisy-le-Roi, France, Bourgeois often references her imperious and philandering father and her mercurial mother, charging her work with sexuality, psychology and mortality.
It wasn’t until the late 60’s/early 70s that Bourgeois begin to gain recognition of her work, and once the ball started rolling, there was no slowing it down. Between 1978 and 1981, she had five-one woman shows in New York. She has participated in four separate Whitney Museum Biennales. She has represented the U.S. in the Venice Biennale and had her work included in Documenta. In the last twenty years of her career, the list of institutions which housed her solo exhibitions reads like a “Who’s Who” of international museums.
A wonderful display of her work is now on exhibit at Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco. The show, Mother and Child (open through June 12th), is a collection of recent sculptures, gouache drawings and mixed media print works. With this particular grouping of drawings, Bourgeois applied blood-red gouache onto wet paper and the affect of the absorption, in some inexplicable way, perfectly illuminates the complicated relationship of the female form with childbirth. I use the word “complicated” because Bourgeois work is such: beautiful, graphic, raw, and visceral. Additionally, Bourgeois often depicts the female form as an abstracted fertility form often encountered in ancient civilizations, reminding us that even with all our modern day technology, childbirth is just as primordial as it ever was.
The central piece of the exhibition, for me, was the work THE FRAGILE, 2007, a large piece of 36, 10 x 8 inches, archival dyes on fabric. Of all the work in the front room of a female form giving birth, this piece, installed in a smaller gallery room, seems the most intimate to me. This work comprises imagery of a variety of female fertility forms and spiders, juxtaposed together into a large grid. Often, Bourgeois would discuss the association of the spider form to her mother, and it is with this knowledge that the artwork reveals itself the most to the viewer. With THE FRAGILE, Bourgeois is allowing herself to be vulnerable with her audience, trusting enough to confide in us her complicated feelings about her mother, and possibly, her own role she has played in motherhood.
With her passing, there have been a slew of articles written about Louise Bourgeois and her contributions and positioning within art history. Many of these articles allude to the majority of her influence being felt by a largely younger, female contingency. This may be true, but one does not need to be female to appreciate and feel the power of Bourgeois’ work. One must be willing to allow him or herself to let down their walls and engage in the intimacy that Bourgeois invites the viewer to experience. In this day and age of many artists attempting to assert their identity of who and what they are in this world via their chosen medium, I defy you to find one who can strip down their psyche to such a vulnerable state as Bourgeois, while metaphorically returning your gaze.