“You, my daughter, need never handle a needle. Women are not supposed to be only craftswomen, they are supposed to have a career.” So admonished her mother when Louise Bourgeois was a girl, assisting her parents in their tapestry repair business by stitching in missing motifs. Her mother, an ardent feminist, had greater dreams for her daughter. [Ref.]
I wonder if she’d ever have imagined her daughter would become one of the greatest sculptors in modern Western art, one known among other things for her use, physically and metaphorically, of needle and thread.
The retrospective of artist Louise Bourgeois at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (on view thru September 28) presents work spanning the artist’s staggering 70+ year career, from her early surrealist paintings and modernist marble sculpture to room-like installations from the ‘90s and more recent hand-stitched burlap figures. It is an emotionally charged show, a feast of form, and an absorbing study in the possibilities for visual story-telling.
As incredibly evocative and associative her work is, as viewers we’re never sure how literally we’re meant to take it. Much of Bourgeois’ work is about navigating the puzzle of her childhood memories and it often feels very raw and exposed. Yet at the same time it remains very private, perhaps even coded: a staircase with space behind for hiding, young hands caressing old hands rendered lifelike in marble, an abstract fantasia of patricide. She often furnishes her work with everyday objects she’s collected over the years: large spools of thread, worn children’s garments, small empty bottles of Shalomar. We feel we can relate, even if we don’t know the specifics.
Bourgeois is the type of artist for whom the creative process is cathartic, a salve for her inner self that was wounded by some traumatic experience early in life. We read that her father had conspicuous extramarital affairs and her parents argued terribly, but beyond that we’re left to wonder. We must take her word for it when she embroiders “Art is the guarantee of sanity” and “I need my memories. They are my documents.” (The strong sexuality of her work I think is more a celebration and embracing than some latent admission of abuse as some suggest.)
It follows, then, that so much of her work would concern needles and thread whether literally or figuratively. A gigantic curved needle is threaded with a thick length of flax, large spools of red and blue thread populate a space suggesting a dress shop, rough fabric dolls sport visual hand stitching and overstuffed limbs. There is embroidery, there are balls of yarn, there are paintings of scissors.
Relatedly, labor is also a significant aspect to her work, both in terms of the labor-intensive processes she chooses (needlepoint embroidery, exquisite marble carving and finishing) and the idea of labor as a subject. Her lifelong fascination with life’s everyday labors, whether animal or human, is recurrent: coupling, birthing, building, dwelling, dying. Making art. From the mysterious hive-like Lairs to the bronze spiders, their legs like bent pins, she is creating homage to nature’s thread-makers, weavers, and builders through her own threading, weaving, and building. I couldn’t help but think of the narrative thread of life, the stitching together of memories.
Bourgeois’ work is extremely personal, even private, and yet incredibly exposed. The mood she creates becomes the record: this happened, I saw this, I heard this, I felt this way. Its power lies in how it doesn’t just show us, but pierces us and laces into our own memories and emotions, as though her work is speaking directly to our own experiences, drawing us in tightly together. In this way it recalled to me the sculpture of Martin Puryear (reviewed in this blog earlier this year).
My attempt at grasping the “craftliness” of Bourgeois’ work denies how enormously complex, layered, and mysterious her work is. One could visit the show fifty times and have fifty different experiences. At the age of 96, I am told that Louise Bourgeois still works every day in her Chelsea studio, and hosts regular salons with younger artists so she can stay fresh and inspired. She wrote on one piece, “It is not so much where my motivation comes from as how it manages to survive.” If only we could all own that secret.
Following its presentation at the Guggenheim, the exhibition will travel to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in fall 2008 and the
PHOTO CREDITS (top to bottom):
Louise Bourgeois with FEMME VOLAGE (1951, Coll: Guggenheim Museum, New York), in the mid-1960s.
Photo: Louise Bourgeois Archive
NO EXIT, 1989
Wood, painted metal and rubber
82 1/2 x 84 x 96”; 209.5 x 213.3 x 243.8 cm.
Fondation Louis Vuitton pour la Création, Paris
Photo: Rafael Lobato
© Louise Bourgeois
Installation view of Spider Couple, Untitled, and Untitled at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008
© Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation New York
Photo by David Heald
Watercolor, ink, oil, charcoal and pencil on paper
23 3/4 x 19”; 60.3 x 48.2 cm.
Courtesy Cheim & Read, Galerie Karsten Greve, and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Christopher Burke
© Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois in 2003.
Photo: Nanda Lanfranco
Red Room (Child), 1994
83 x 139 x 108”; 210.8 x 353 x 274.3 cm.
Collection Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal
Photo: Marcus Schneider
© Louise Bourgeois
Posted by Amy Shaw for Greenjeans.