by Maya Kóvskaya, PhD
The life and work of Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) – one of the most celebrated artists of our time – are monuments to the paradoxical nature of being in the world. The impetus of her lifelong creative and personal trajectory has been described as the need to “alleviate a core experience of abandonment” by her long-time assistant, companion and ‘found family’ Jerry Gorovoy. Bourgeois’s seven decades of practice produced a diverse oeuvre: from sensuous bronze and marble works, to hanging aluminum sculptures, from her Cell installations, to her soft sculpture works; from her iconic spider sculptures, to an evocative series of feathery gouache diptychs on paper. With a body of work that reveals the central themes and rhythms of her autobiographical works, and with an estate who is highly involved in preserving her legacy, audiences around the world continue to be touched by the reparative, human power of Bourgeois’s art.
A fiercely intelligent, well-read artist, for whom the making of art was as much a means of ‘being in the world’ as a vocation, Bourgeois drew heavily on psychoanalytic thought. Performing uncanny exorcisms with her creations, she navigated the labyrinths of her past and her unconscious. Through the spinning of metonymical visual narratives, Bourgeois’s work forms a web of stories about her life. These are simultaneously stories about the paradoxes of the human condition and served as a crucible in which a ‘Self’ – straining towards the nearly impossible yet existentially necessary act of connecting with ‘Others’ – could be forged out of alienation and personal trauma.
Born in Paris in 1911 to a father who sold and a mother who restored and repaired medieval and renaissance tapestries, Bourgeois’s understanding of herself was formed in a complex relationship to her family. Troubled by a highly charged, conflicted relationship with her father, whom she both loved and resented, family trauma permeated her adolescence and left its traces on her art. Her father betrayed the family, and pressured young Louise to be someone she was not. In order to become who she needed to be, she had to reject and negate him. This symbolic loss of her father was compounded by the untimely death of her passive but nurturing mother in 1932, following a long illness, during which Bourgeois cared for her in a poignant reversal of roles.
Trauma, rage, and retribution against her father would fuel the making of many artworks throughout a significant part of Bourgeois’s life. Her later works, however, were increasingly informed by a coming to terms with the loss of her mother and the reclamation of a generative, maternal power. Through the making of artworks, she found an inner clarity and strength to make reparations (to others and to herself) for what she had suffered and lost. Finding herself through her art took place, in part, along the axes of her ‘bad father’ and ‘good mother’. Defining herself required negotiating her own place somewhere in between their two poles.
Later in life, when Louise Bourgeois had left her mark deep upon subsequent generations, and risen to a position of prominence in the art world paralleled by few artists of her time, male or female, some would wryly claim her as contemporary art’s very own ‘bad enough mother’, – an artist who was ‘bad enough’ to challenge and transgress the taboos and repressive order of society, yet maternal enough to engender new forms of growth and healing through her artwork’s regenerative power. As the first woman to have a retrospective at the New York Museum of Modern Art (in 1982), Bourgeois helped open the way for a new generation of marginalised artists to claim their places in the art world.
At the time her mother died, however, Bourgeois was still an emotionally volatile, vulnerable young woman seeking her way in the world. She enrolled at the Sorbonne to study Mathematics, hoping its rationality and order could still the tumult inside her caused by her family dramas. When she failed to find the relief she sought in Euclidian Geometry two years later, she flouted her father’s contempt for artists, and sought solace in the geometry of visual forms on paper, and later in three-dimensional space, instead.
As a young girl, Bourgeois had used her drawing talents to help her parents repair worn tapestries by sketching in the missing parts that had to be rewoven. After leaving the Sorbonne, in 1934 she sought formal training at various art institutes, such as École de Beaux Arts, Académie Ranson, Académie Julian, and began to frequent artists’ studios, encountering artists such as Yves Breyer, Fernand Léger, Andre Lhote, and others.
In 1936 she rented a flat in the building where famed Surrealist André Breton’s gallery Gravida was located. Soon familiar with their work and their circle, Bourgeois rejected both the patriarchal authority of that male-dominated scene, and the label of Surrealist, and identified herself instead as an existentialist. Uninterested in finding either surrogate father figure or paternal patron, and unwilling to play the main roles available to women in the scene – that of sexual object and/or muse – Bourgeois chose independence over belonging and maintained a certain distance from the Surrealist movement.
In 1938, over discussions of Picasso at the print shop she had opened in Paris, where she sold lithographs of major artists, Bourgeois met her future husband, Robert Goldwater, an eminent art historian who pioneered the study of ‘primitive’ art. They married soon thereafter and she moved to New York. There she would raise their three boys, survive the death of her husband in 1973, and pursue her vigorous art practice from her late twenties until she died at the age of 98 in May of 2010, at the peak of her creative powers.
In New York, Bourgeois’s art practice galvanised around the intensely personal motifs she would explore throughout her life in various media. When she first arrived in the US in late 1938, the respected painter and art teacher Vaclav Vytlacil mentored her. Her paintings and prints from that period already offer a precocious glance at many of her life-long preoccupations – in particular her fraught relationship to the twin poles of autonomy and connectedness – and prominent themes that reappear in various guises throughout her long career.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Louise Bourgeois became a respected participant in the New York art world. Although her work was well received within the art circle and by the 1940s she was exhibiting alongside major American artists such as Mark Rothko, Willem De Kooning, and Jackson Pollack, she did not enjoy the same widespread public recognition garned by her male peers until her breakthrough 1982 Retrospective at the New York Museum of Modern Art.
Too expansive to be contained within the confines of established schools of art, Bourgeois’s work drew freely on the visual and conceptual resources of art history and defiantly resisted assimilation into easy categories. Her gift for making meaningful wholes out of a patchwork of ragged parts has ensured the evocative force and enduring relevance of her work. Indeed, the visual grammar that she offered for making sense of the human condition now inhabits the deep structure of our collective unconscious in ways that have transformed the landscape of contemporary art in Asia as well as in the Western hemisphere.
Throughout her seventy-year career, Bourgeois worked her way through multiple modes of exploration that form distinct genres of her practice. In her early paintings, from the late 1930-40s, such as her Femme Maison works, disciplinary domestic architecture envelops the heads and upper bodies of nude female figures.In her sculptural debut in 1949 with her Personages works, the totemic wooden pieces were long, thin, vertical, phallic, and precariously installed throughout the gallery environment like a group of people viewers had to move among and face.
Between 1953 and 1964, Bourgeois worked in relative isolation. Her move to Chelsea, with her studio in the basement, where she lived until her death in 2010, marked a shift in her practice. Soft Landscapes were wrought from materials as diverse as alabaster and plastic, from 1963-67. Plaster and latex moulded into squat, biomorphic forms, culminating in her most overtly phallic work – Fillette (1968) – and father-oriented work – Destruction of the Father (1974), which was a symbolic, cannibalistic consumption of the tyrannical, once-beloved father who betrayed her.
In the late 1960s, a trip back to Europe led to a two-decade long enchantment with ‘traditional materials’ such as bronze and marble. She explored more biomorphic and gender ambiguous, polyvalent imagery in a form she called the ‘cumul’, which like cottony clouds in the sky seem to shift shape to yield abstracted body parts, and morphing masculine and feminine signifiers.
In the 1990s, Bourgeois began making her in Cell installations, which combined the ‘found’ and the fabricated, sculpture and installation to create emotionally evocative environments of intensely provocative power.During the same period, she began to make works using textiles and sewing, to turn her own cast-off clothing into figurative soft sculpture, and produced a body of work that manifested her growing preoccupation with motherhood, and the reparative possibilities of maternal power, among other existential states of being. Perhaps because her mother was a weaver who could make the frayed and damaged whole again, Bourgeois saw needles as restorative, rather than violent symbols.
At the turn of the century and into the new millennium, when she was well into her nineties, Bourgeois was still prolific. Reanimating her ‘good mother’, the weaver, in a new guise, she began to make her iconic spiders, exemplified by the 9 meter tall steel Maman (1999) protecting her clutch of marble eggs.
Vulnerable yet formidable, frightened yet courageous, Bourgeois explored her conscious and unconscious fears of abandonment and need for human connection through her remarkably diverse and prolific art practice. This enabled her to give concrete forms and specific faces to her most intimate hopes and fears in an effort to confront and heal the wounds of the past. The enduring power of her art is a testament to the ways in which the fragmented, damaged parts of an individual’s life can be repaired and restored into a coherent whole that can speak to the larger human condition.
Just as the central mode of meaning making in Bourgeois’s work is metonym – in which a part stands for a larger whole – her private, personal preoccupations stand for elements of our shared human experience of being in the world. Her art embodies a courageous struggle to find equilibrium between the antinomies of ‘being in the world’ – alone and together – that she understood so well. We are mortally alone and we are inextricably connected. This connection is fraught with anxiety and pain, but it is also one of the great sources of pleasure and reasons to persist in our separate, yet intertwined existences.
With the intensity of someone for whom art offered the only safety net she knew how to weave, Bourgeois lived and worked like a tightrope walker balancing herself over the abyss of the mortal world of Others, afraid of heights, but nevertheless forcing herself to keep looking down.
Like so many of us, in her personal life, Bourgeois needed and sought a human intimacy that she feared and sometimes fled. In her art, she evoked binaries and oppositional categories in a way that undermined them, dissolving their boundaries. Even as she feared instability and chaos, her work consistently challenged the order these binaries represented, rendering them ambivalent, and offering us new possibilities for seeing ourselves and our world in the process.
 Gorovoy, Jerry and Danielle Tinkin, “There’s No Place Like Home,” in Louise Bourgeois: Memory and Architecture, exhibition catalogue, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 1999, p.15.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maya Kovskaya (Ph.D, UC Berkeley, 2009) is a Beijing and Delhi based writer, art critic, curator, and independent scholar with over a decade of experience in China. Besides having curated several shows, she has penned the book China Under Construction: Contemporary Art from the People’s Republic on Chinese contemporary art.