A look into the life of Louise Bourgeois

Imagine being a leader in your field for more than 60 years. Imagine rubbing shoulders and exchanging ideas with the artistic greats of the past half-century. Imagine succeeding on your own terms.

It’s a feat few have achieved.
It’s a feat even fewer women have achieved.

Artist Louise Bourgeois is a success story. Born in Paris in 1911, Bourgeois moved in Parisian surrealist circles, moved to New York, became a leader in modern art and, at 96, is among the pre-eminent female artists working today.

To honour her long and prolific career, New York’s Solomon R Guggenheim Museum has opened the first full Louise Bourgeois retrospective.

Bourgeois has been showing work regularly since the 1940s and is probably best known for her massive spider sculptures. A pair greets visitors upon entering the Guggenheim’s rotunda. Spider Couple (2003)—with gangly legs that can either entrap or embrace—and a pair of shiny aluminum spirals that resemble clouds or intestines, depending on your mood, hang low near the entrance. They are the first introductions to works that can be intense, difficult, uncomfortable, bad and quite beautiful.

Versions of this retrospective were first shown at the Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. In bringing the show to the Guggenheim, the museum’s chief curator, Nancy Spector, said a certain amount of “rethinking” was involved to accommodate the “eccentricities” of the building, which is designed around a spiralling wide ramp with the centre of the structure left open.

On each floor is an unobtrusive gallery entrance so the spiral seems nearly unbroken. It is a wide, light, bright, vertigo-inducing space, but moving from the ramp to gallery and back to ramp can make for a jumbled experience. With this exhibit, where the feel of a timeline is so important, all the pieces are displayed along the spiral walkway and in one gallery room.

The spiral starts with Bourgeois’s earliest works in the 1940s and ends at the top with her most recent from 2008. It is a continuous path and a lovely way to both use the space and allow viewers to see progression in an artist’s work.

Unfortunately, there’s not much progress to track. The mediums change—the 1940s oil to 1960s wood sculpture to marble and metal, found objects, installation pieces, fabric—but the message stays consistent, somewhat redundant and extremely blatant.

The 1940s oil paintings that start the spiral show a heavy surrealist influence and are among the least impressive of her works.

Continuing into the 1950s are her wood sculptures—stacks of painted wood arranged to resemble bodies or abstract architectural forms. The most recognised, 1951’s Femme Volage, is structurally the most interesting, though all bring to mind both Giacometti and Brancusi.

Among the other wood forms are her African-influenced smaller sculptures, consisting mostly of oblong wood totems with pointed tops surrounding shorter, rounded pieces. One and Others (1955) exudes a frightening sense of claustrophobia, of the male surrounding the female with little way to escape. So begins the introduction to the themes that still pervade her work today—male and female, sexuality, violence, entrapment, anger, architecture and creation.

Farther up the spiral is Cumul I (1968), a beautiful, classical-looking marble sculpture. From a distance, it resembles a rolling landscape and up close it appears to be phallic structures in various states of emergence from their cover. Staying with that theme—a few steps away—is the famous latex sculpture Fillette (1968), an obvious phallus hanging from its tip. But it also resembles feminine forms—artist Robert Mapplethorpe once photographed Bourgeois holding Fillette under her arm, a sly smile on her face.

Another curve of the spiral brings us to The Destruction of the Father (1974). The title leaves little to the imagination and it is a moonscape depiction under red light of a dismembered male figure on a table, surrounded on all sides by surging female rounded structures.

Seen from above at a distance—a great benefit of the spiral—Destruction resembles a still from a horror film. The meaning couldn’t be clearer.

Continuing up is 1993’s bronze Arch of Hysteria, a beautiful headless male form arched backward, fingers almost touching heels. The sculpture shines and sways, casting a shadow on the white wall; a charcoal sketch of the work hanging above.

Next are the cells, a series of wire, glass and wooden door structures that pretty much encapsulate her career’s long themes. The structures, some of which are difficult to see into, focus on memory and a sense of being caged by the past.

The later years bring a change in medium with fabrics, clothing and pencil etching. The works themselves convey the same violence and sexuality as her earlier efforts, but the medium makes them into slightly softer representations. What is telling about these most recent works is not that they bring the art of Louise Bourgeois to a new level, but that they explain just how integral her life and themes are to her work.

If at 96 Bourgeois is still working with the issues she first explored 60 years ago, these issues are, in fact, her work.—Sapa-AP

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