Over the years, I saw pieces of hers here and there, in different museums in different cities, and of course had the pleasure of staring at images of them in print. And then-- I'm not sure when-- I had the startling experience of seeing a small show of her work at the Henry Gallery, here in Seattle. And I was shocked (and pleased) by the effect it had on me. Although the Wikipedia entry pays a lot of attention to her more recent spider pieces, back then I was swept away by the sensuality of some of her more shapely pieces (and creeped out by her earlier paintings, for more of which, see below). Several pieces of sculpture deeply moved me, though one in particular absolutely obsessed me. I can't tell you how hard it was to resist touching its marble curves. (It wasn't enclosed in glass!) The effect was tremendously erotic. This was one of those rare instances when I was visiting the exhibit on my own. Under the circumstances, I was glad for that.
As for the work that creeped me out: in the 1940s, Bourgeois produced a series of paintings that today are easily understood as feminist, though critics of the day took them for something else. Here's Whitney Chadwick on them:
The nexus of body/home/art is central to the early work of Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911) whose femme-maison paintings were exhibited in 1947. Although Bourgeois pointed to the home as a place of conflict for the woman artist, critics read the paintings as affirming a "natural" identification between women and home. Her paintings of 1947 evolved out of earlier ones based on the grid, a structural form familiar to her from her early weaving and tapestry, an from her training in Cubist abstraction. Under the influence of Surrealism, she developed the personal, quasi-figurative imagery of these femme-maison paintings with their houses perched on top of women's bodies in place of heads. In these disquiesting works, domesticity, imaged through blank facades and small windows, defines women but denies them speaking voices. "Hers is a world of women," writes one critic. "Blithely they emerge from chimneys, or, terrified, they watch from their beds as curtains fly from a nightmare window. A whole family of females proves [sic] their domesticity by having houses for heads." (Women, Art, and Society, 303-304)It can come, then, as no surprise that Bourgeois participated in the feminist uprising of artists in the 1970s. Astonishingly, according to obituaries, Bourgeois continued working right up until her death.
Here are the obituaries I've seen:
Holland Cotter, Louise Bourgeois, Artist and Sculptor, Is Dead (New York Times)
Jennifer Peltz Arist Louise Bourgeois dies in NYC at 98 (AP)
Jennifer Peltz Sculptor Louise Bourgeois Plumbed Depths of Female Psyche, Made Giant Freaky Spiders (Christian Science Monitor)
Michael McNay Louise Bourgeois obituary (The Guardian)
Finally, Bourgeois herself: here's an excerpt of Rachel Cooke's interview of Bourgeois, October 2007:
RC: The main focus of your work, according to some, is the relationship between an entity and its surroundings. But you have also been influenced by human relationships. Can you explain more about this aspect of your work?
LB: My works are portraits of a relationship, and the most important one was my mother. Now, how these feelings for her are brought into my interaction with other people, and how these feelings for her feed into my work is both complex and mysterious. I'm still trying to understand the mechanism.
RC: In the Fifties and Sixties, the art market ignored you a little. Was this frustrating? Was it connected to your sex? How and why did things change?
LB: The Fifties were definitely macho and the Sixties less so. The fact that the market was not interested in my work because I was a woman was a blessing in disguise. It allowed me to work totally undisturbed. Don't forget that there were plenty of women in a position of power in the art world: women were trustees of museums, the owners of galleries, and many were critics. Surely, the Women's Movement affected the role of women in the art world. The art world is simply a microcosm of the larger world where men and women compete.
RC: Today, your most famous works might be your 'spider' structures. Is this pleasing? Can you talk a little about how they came about?
LB: The spiders were an ode to my mother. She was a tapestry woman, and like a spider, was a weaver. She protected me and was my best friend.
RC: Your parents worked with tapestry, and you initially studied mathematics. Some critics have traced both these influences in your work. How separate is the mathematician in you, from the artist, or are the two intimately connected?
LB: My love of geometry is expressed by the formal aspect of my work. From the tapestries, I got this large sense of scale. I learned their stories, the use of symbolism and art history. The restoration of the tapestries functioned on a psychological level as well. By this I mean that things that have broken down or have been ripped apart can be joined and mended. My art is a form of restoration in terms of my feelings to myself and to others.