As previously mentioned, Louise Bourgeois died last week. She was one of the most influential sculptors on the art scene, and, for reasons I will explain, my favorite (once) living artist.
Several weeks ago, I found myself in the kind of extremely earnest conversation that one only enters into after downing several dark n' stormies (or whatever libation makes you want to pontificate). Our discussion revolved around two big name art world celebrities, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, who my artist friend had dismissed as "hacks." When asked who she considered worthy in today's art world, she responded immediately: Louise Bourgeois. Even though they were familiar with Koons and Hirst (who, some have claimed, was directly influenced by her work), none of our male companions had ever heard her name.
Unfortunately, outside the art world, this isn't that surprising. Bourgeois was never a celebrity artist quite like Koons or Hirst, both of whom inexplicably appear up in every other issue of Vogue (though she did once have her work featured on a Gap t-shirt). She had been working on the fringes of the art world for years before the Museum of Modern Art in New York decided to give her a retrospective. The 1982 show placed Bourgeois in the prominent position she deserved. At the age of 70, she had finally arrived.
The first time I saw her sculptures I was a freshman in college, visiting the Dia museum in Beacon, New York. Although Bourgeois is probably most famous for her metal arachnid, I was captivated by the suspended brass forms that looked to me like a cross between a croissant and a fetus. They were the very definition of uncanny. Achingly familiar, her pieces often evoke dismembered bodies, warped and distorted until we can only recognize them as something that was once human. Pretty simply doesn't apply, and beautiful doesn't feel too much closer, either. Bourgeois's work borders on grotesque, but it is not ugly.
Part of what makes her work so unsettling is its connection to the human body, and more specifically, to her own body. Bourgeois has admitted that the majority of her work is autobiographical. This statement, along with an interview with 1982 interview with Bourgeois about her childhood, unleashed a flood of academic work that attempted to read personal meaning into each and every piece. Some, like the giant spider titled "Maman" (mommy) make this job fairly easy. The repetition of disembodied breast-like protruding forms throughout her art serve to strengthen the threatening maternal association. Another notable piece was her 1974 sculpture "Destruction of the Father," in which she depicts a human body turned inside-out o a table surrounded by imposing bulbous onlookers. Her titles have always pointed to some personal turmoil, but once Bourgeois opened up about her past, her art become almost secondary to her history; in the words of the Richard Dorment, she became "an A-list celebrity more famous for what she said about her work than for any intrinsic aesthetic quality of emotional truth it may have had."
During our drunken art-talk, we decided that one of the reasons Bourgeois isn't as much of a fashionable favorite as her male counterparts has to do with her gender, but perhaps the real reason she has been dismissed has to do with her unsettling candor and her desire to turn everything inside-out. In her sculptures, Bourgeois dissected the body, mutilating it until viewers could only detect a trace of humanity. Sex was present, as was the mother, the father, and all that Freudian junk, but it is present in such a way that is both confrontational and impossible to pin down (is this a penis or a liver? is a question most of us find more disturbing than titillating). Did Bourgeois "invent" confessional art? Maybe. But I hope that this is not what she is remembered for. Bourgeois was the first woman to have her own retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. She was chosen to represent the United States at the 1993 Venice Biennale. She has had exhibitions of her work at the Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Bourgeois had long been involved in the feminist movement, and even though she may not have received the same kind of acclaim as some (far less talented) male artists, her inclusion in these events has helped pave the way for female artists.
And as for the "emotional truth" of her work, I would argue that there is a great amount of truth in her work, yet it is not the kind we truly want to see. Bourgeois was brave enough to imbue her pieces with a message that is unsettling, disturbing, and often messy. She freely provided viewers with insight into her work, but no easy answers about what was revealed. "The subject of pain is the business I am in," she said. "To give meaning and shape to frustration and suffering. The existence of pain cannot be denied. I propose no remedies or excuses." It was this attitude, her uncompromising dedication to uncovering something, no matter how personal or revolting, that set Bourgeois apart from so many contemporary artists.
Image via the Centre Pompidou