Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Au Revoir, Louise, Mistress of Spiders

Artist Louise Bourgeois, whose sculptures exploring women's deepest feelings on birth, sexuality and death were highly influential, died Monday at the age of 98. She had continued creating artwork — her latest pieces were finished just last week — before suffering a heart attack Saturday night, said the studio director, Wendy Williams.

Working in a wide variety of materials, she tackled themes relating to male and female bodies and emotions of anger, betrayal, even murder. Her work reflected influences of surrealism, primitivism and the early modernist sculptors such as Alberto Giacometti and Constantin Brancusi. She exposed painful truths, in herself, in her family history, about all of us, separating out inner anxieties from the usual social mask that we wear to create work that is often screams ominous warning about the ugliness in the human condition.

"I really want to worry people, to bother people," she told The Washington Post in 1984. "They say they are bothered by the double genitalia in my new work. Well, I have been bothered by it my whole life. I once said to my children, 'It's only physiological, you know, the sex drive.' That was a lie. It's much more than that."

The Nest, 1996. SF MOMA

Public recognition came late in life. Born in France in 1911, she married the American art historian Robert Goldwater in 1938 and moved to New York. She worked first as a painter and then, after 1940, as a sculptor. But it was not until she was 70, in 1982, that New York's Museum of Modern Art presented a solo show of her career.

"This is not a show that is easy to digest," New York Times critic Grace Glueck wrote. "The reward is an intense encounter with an artist who explores her psyche at considerable risk."
In his book "American Visions," Time art critic Robert Hughes called her "the mother of American feminist identity art. ... Bourgeois's influence on young artists has been enormous." He noted the key difference in her use of sexual imagery: She explores "femaleness from within, as distinct from the familiar male conventions of looking at it from the outside, from the eyeline of another gender. ... Surrealist fascination with the female body becomes, so to speak, turned inside out."

"My best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and useful," Bourgeois wrote. As for men, she arguably never recovered from her father's betrayal. For ten years, his mistress was the Englishwoman employed to teach his children.

"You see, I always hated that woman," she told The Washington Post. "... My work is often about murder." In "The Destruction of the Father" — a 1974 installation that appeared at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 2008-2009, in a traveling retrospective — Bourgeois re-created a youthful fantasy of her father being dismembered and devoured by his family.

"She smashed a taboo," said Christopher Knight, The Times' art critic. "Bourgeois was the first modern artist to expose the emotional depth and power of domestic subject matter. Before her, male artists had only nibbled around the edges, and women just weren't allowed."

In "Dangerous Passage," from 1997, Bourgeois drew upon memories of her childhood, strewing a cage with symbolic objects: an antique child's swing on one side; broken bones on the other.

Her room-size 1991 sculpture "Twosome" combined a flashing red light, two steel cylinders and a motor that propels the smaller cylinder in an out of the larger one. The materials suggested a machine, but the movement evokes sexuality, or birth.

In 2007, she depicted the effects of aging on her own body in a series of 11 large panels called "Extreme Tension."

In an email exchange in early 2008, The Associated Press asked Bourgeois what advice she would give young artists just starting out.

"Tell your own story, and you will be interesting," she responded. "Don't get the green disease of envy. Don't be fooled by success and money. Don't let anything come between you and your work."

"You have to be very aggressive to be a sculptor...I want it my way," she said. "It is difficult to be a woman and be likable. This desire to be likable is a pain in the neck."

Art historian Robert Storr has praised Bourgeois as "among the most inquisitive and best-informed artists of her generation. No analysis of her work or its internal dynamics that sidesteps this fact, or fails to consider the unique mix of intuition and erudition, psychological compulsion and sheer intelligence that has guided her, can possibly claim to measure the full range of its meanings."

But when asked how she wanted to remembered in art history books, she responded: "I'm not that interested in art history. I was married to an art historian and had enough of it. Art history is one thing and being an artist is another. I know I'm part of history, just a tiny stone in a very big wall."

Her husband died in 1973. She is survived by two sons, Alain and Jean Louis, as well as two grandchildren and a great-grandchild. A third son, Michel, predeceased her, Williams said.

Currently, her work is being shown at Gallery Paule Anglim through June 12th.
(images from Gallery Paule Anglim Web Site)

SFMOMA will be showing Brigitte Cornand’s Louise Bourgeois Trilogy on three consecutive Thursdays in August, something to look forward to. Rest in peace.

2007 dedication ceremony for her Crouching Spider piece at the Embarcadero (with some great photos of both the spider and Ms. Bourgeois)


Zoomie said...

I heard from an art student at SFAI that Louise Bourgeois held a salon in NYC to which young artists were always invited and that she mentored many of them, but none of the obits I have read refer to those evenings. Was that a myth, I wonder?

namastenancy said...

I hadn't read that but if it's true, how wonderful.

Zoomie said...

Here's a little article about it:

Seems she had been doing it for many years. From this description, it seems more like an audience than a true critique session. Still, it must have been something just to be there and experience that.

sfmike said...

I love: "Art history is one thing and being an artist is another. I know I'm part of history, just a tiny stone in a very big wall." That's called perspective.