Until Louise Bourgeois was in her 50s she was known as the French lady who appeared with her husband, the art historian Robert Goldwater. It wasn’t until MoMA gave Bourgeois a retrospective in 1982 when she was 70 that she finally took her place as the extraordinary sculptor making psychologically charged abstract sculptures, drawings, and prints.
She was born on the left bank of Paris on Christmas day in 1911. The second of three children, her parents, financially comfortable, owned a gallery that dealt in antique tapestries. They moved out of Paris a few years after her birth to set up a workshop for the restoration of tapestries, which were sold in their Paris gallery. Bourgeois remembers drawing fragments of missing images to help with the repairs. “I became an expert at drawing legs and feet…. That is how my art started,” said Louise. I recall a story she told of her mother having to cut out human sex organs on tapestries and repairing the holes with fig leafs or the like. Sewing together these sexual parts the mother made a quilt for Louise, which Louise thoroughly enjoyed.
Though initially her father was disappointed with the birth of a daughter, he later adored her for her talent and spirit. Louise hated her father for his explosive temper and his domination of the household, for humiliating her, and most of all for many times betraying her long-suffering mother, Joséphine. Louise found out at the age of 10 that her father was having an affair with the English woman he hired to teach Louise English.
When Louise was in her 70s, I invited her to speak with my graduate students at the Yale School of Art. She told the story of this betrayal and of her father in a manner that was palpably angry and pained. This affair lasted 10 years. The resulting resentment and insecurity was never laid to rest. Bourgeois said, “when a tapestry had to be washed in the river, it took four people to hoist it out and twist it. Twisting is very important for me. When I dreamt of getting rid of the mistress, it was by twisting her neck.”
Louise did a sculpture-installation titled “The Destruction of the Father” in which she casts hunks of mutton and beef still on the bone in plaster then covered them with latex rubber. She put them in a cave-like structure lit with a red glow. Louise said that the “Destruction” sculpture was a kind of dream in which the children turn on the father over the dining table and dismember him… something like cleansing oneself of fear.
Her work is centered around the theme of the body or how she saw the body. She titled one torso-like form with breast-like shapes, swollen, drawn downward by gravity, with many orifices, a self-portrait because that was how she felt about her body enabling other women to identify with this feeling.
In the ’90s Bourgeois made “Arch of Hysteria.” One of her most compelling sculptural images, it is a horizontal body either male or female, arching its back in orgasm or pain or both. “The subject of pain is the business I am in,” she once wrote.
More recently she has made some remarkable tapestry and fabric pieces. The figures are made of terry towels looking like flesh-colored or baby blue soft toys of, often, copulating figures. The later spiders, of which she made many, were a kind of homage to her patient, put-upon, inventive, tireless mother, Joséphine.
Bourgeois was a very good poser for photographers… one of the few artists I know that are able to work their own faces and bodies with such ease, humor, and fluidity with the objects of their creation. Amei Wallach is the woman who made a film on Bourgeois several years ago in which Louise’s deepest roots of her anguish and her art were revealed with a great deal of sensitivity. Of Louise, Amei said she had a magnetic screen presence.
By the age of 96, Louise Bourgeois was regarded as one of the most important artists in the world. Through her courageous delving into her own psyche, she made her extraordinary, idiosyncratic paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, collages, installations, and monumental constructions. Folding in concerns of betrayal, loss, anger, and jealousy, Bourgeois addresses that which is universal to all childhoods… the need for nurture and protection from a frightening world.
Her town house in Chelsea was never painted or repaired since the death of her husband in 1973. She worked there until the week of her death at 98.