On Monday, the French-born American sculptor Louise Bourgeois died in her Manhattan home at age 98 of a heart attack.
Born Christmas day in Paris in 1911, Bourgeois came to fame late in her sixties. She is widely regarded as the grand dame of the art world and infused her work with both Modern and contemporary sensibilities. She is perhaps known best for her enormous lissome spiders of bronze named Maman, all executed in the last twelve years and meant as tense odes to her mother. (The spiders are especially beautiful outside, beside the strict rigidity of buildings such as the Museo Capidomonte in Naples.)
Bourgeois's sculpture ranges in style, from coolly echoing the abstract geometry of earlier sculptors like Arp and Noguchi to becoming scences of distilled, ragged violence as in her cells series, such as Arch of Hysteria, 1992-3, and in Destruction of the Father, 1974. But the same emotional themes of sexuality and innocence, authority and victimization, clothing and nakedness, birth and death, care and destruction, and, above all, her own crooked childhood, which she said never lost its magic and terror, permeate all her creations, even the tiniest ones (Femme Couteau, 2001). With few exceptions, hers is a body of work that is jarring, disturbing, and at times suffocating. The Guardian has a slideshow of the dramatically dressed artist (she liked fur and hats) and her art here.
In 2008, the Guggenheim held a retrospective of her work, some of which can be seen here. In a review, WEEKLY STANDARD contributor Lance Esplund argues well that “melodramatic literalness is Ms. Bourgeois's Achilles heel.” (This is also a trait that those inspired by her, such as Kiki Smith and Rebecca Horn, have inherited.) He continues:
The difficulty with Ms. Bourgeois's sculptures is that the works — the good and the bad — feel trumped by the life that brought them to fruition. The story of Ms. Bourgeois's life is both the glue and the stumbling block of her entire oeuvre.
When Ms. Bourgeois is good (and she can be very, very good), the infamous, psychologically traumatizing, and defining story of her life — that her father firmly ensconced his mistress in their family home under the false pretense that she was Louise's governess — overshadows and muddles the work: We feel obligated to treat the sculptures as illustrations of her hatred of her father, her confusions regarding home, love, and sex, and her sense of betrayal. And when her sculpture is bad (and it can be very, very bad), the story of her life feels like an excuse for art that amounts to little more than therapeutic exorcism.
Bourgeois has used the word "exorcism" in relation to her art. She has also declared, “For me, sculpture is the body. My body is the sculpture," and "the subject of pain is the business I am in." She did not work to keep the body and her art separate, but worked to push them close, as many feminist artists have since. She even chose media that were like skin, such as rubber, cloth, and thread; and then made them into biomorphic shapes infused with more than a little terror. Given the psychological, even existential, nature of her work, it is not surprising that she went through a phase of reading books by Kierkegaard, who also examined suffering and despair, which he diagnosed as a condition, a sickness. (Unlike the philosopher, however, she was a professed atheist, but confessed to having a "religious temperament" that she was not "educated to use.") She once told a friend that her work was engendered in terror—specifically her fear of falling from grace—and in the process of making art she was attempting to transmogrify that terror—or freeze that eventual fall from grace—into a thing of beauty. (By "beauty" she means clarity, sanity, such as that found in the pattern of a carefully laid grid.) Achieving such beauty would be approximate to performing by her own hand an exorcism, for at least the work. In fact, after completing a series of grids in the puritan (1989-96), she said she felt as though she had orchestrated "a real exorcism."
This is art that is, for better and worse, chiefly about the drama of the self.