Louise Bourgeois is hard to place in my personal inspiration taxonomy. I have been aware of her for most of my art-making life, but I never had the deep connection to her work that I have had with the pack of painters who were my early heroes. But respect? I have always had lots of that, for who she was and how she approached her art. And as for prolific, Bourgeois’ output has been superhuman, ranging from prints to works in wood, stone, steel, fabric and rubber. Her work possesses a rawness that is organic and can at times feel almost aggressive. But an underlying leitmotif carries through her life’s work: the human body in all of its personal peculiarity and raw vulnerability.
She brandished a style of feminist outrage that focused primarily on her own personal life story, and her approach to her autobiographical material was unique in the art world of the 70s and 80s. She was so French! Her work was not strident. Instead she could be seductively coy as well as blatantly over the top. Like Rothko who vehemently rejected any tag of “spiritual” to his signatory work, Bourgeois refused to claim sexuality as her intent. But the sexuality of her work is rampant. When she did her legendary photo shoot with Robert Mapplethorpe she was photographed in a black coat of monkey fur with a prop under her arm. To our eye it was a giant penis and balls, but she insisted that the black latex sculpture was her “little girl.” All of this of course while she is smiling so mischievously. That was Louise.
One of my favorite quotes from her (and I cannot remember who originally shared this with me) has been a keeper. In speaking to the art students at one of the New York City art schools, her advice to them was to make their art as true to their authentic expression as can be regardless of the trends in art at the time. “Then rent some warehouse space in Long Island and put the work away for 10 or 20 years. The rest of the world may catch up with your vision, but you need to be patient.” This story was particularly memorable since she did not achieve her own well deserved success until very late in her life.
Some of her works delight me, some are actually quite repulsive. And some are just a bit ho hum, like the giant spider series that made her extremely well known in her later years. But her tenacious energy, playful coyness and inventiveness have never been seen in that combination before. She is a force of nature that will be missed.
Cumul I (1968). (Photograph: HO/Associated Press)
From Jonathan Jones’ eulogy: “Bourgeois claimed she saw no sexual forms in this teeming nest of, er, sexual forms. (Artists don’t always have to make sense.) The whiteness of marble creates an ethereal, cloud-like quality: hence the title.
Kudos to the Guardian (absolutely, without question, the best art coverage overall in a major newspaper) for running so many eulogies. Here’s a sampling from their site plus a few others: