From the Archives: Louise Bourgeois—Gender & Possession

New York

Seemingly swept up by the three successive avant-garde movements–Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and today’s Expressionist resurgence–Louise Bourgeois has in fact never ceased operating from the position of outsider. Indeed her real concerns, as a recent retrospective made clear, are basically subversive.

Actual conditions are no longer determinant. With poetry the imagination takes place on the margin, exactly where the function of unreality comes to charm or disturb—always to awaken—the sleeping being lost in its automatisms.—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

For 40 years Louise Bourgeois has resisted assimilation. Indeed, she is the last major figure of her generation whose “art world” reputation and influence on younger artists involve no significant debt to official approval or to wide public recognition and acceptance. Rather, the respect she commands is directly attributable to the active part she has continued to take in the ongoing struggles of contemporary art, and most importantly to the imposing and virtually unmediated presence of the work itself. By current standards, in fact, she scarcely had an “art career” at all. Instead, Bourgeois has chosen to remain at the periphery of the “scene,” though always close enough to feel its pulse, and has committed her full attention to the exploration of her own obsessive preoccupations, protecting the hermetic nature of her art and the idiosyncratic rhythm of its gestation from early demands of the market on one hand, and from stagnant isolation on the other. It is a position occupied out of both choice and necessity, and as much as it manifests a personal diffidence and a profound ambivalence toward authority and the mechanisms of power, it also expresses an unshakable sense of the real worth of what she has done and of the discipline required to do it.

In recent years this relative obscurity has been gradually altered. The specific agent of change was feminism, the most pervasive and radical of the many “pluralist” constituencies of the last ten years, and more particularly the insistence of feminist artists and critics we look hard at for whatever was formerly considered “marginal” in art, and hardest of all at the very notion that a “mainstream” existed. Under the pressure of their conviction and research, diaristic imagery, emotionally charged eclecticism, new materials and previously unacceptable attitudes toward craft were all admitted as serious points of departure for looking at old art and making the new. Wherever these categories were opened one found Bourgeois hard at work. Thus, though she rejected the polemical premise of an exclusively feminist esthetic, Bourgeois nevertheless found herself part of a genuine avant-garde, and though the Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists had in their seasons swept her up similarly, she was this time unquestionably a dominant member. In the context of the broader revisionism of the time, Bourgeois shared with Philip Guston the special function of being a living and accessible link between the fertile confusion of historical modernism and the restlessness felt by many who had grown up half-enthralled and half stifled by the pretensions and severities of post-’50s formalism.

Bourgeois’s preeminent position has now been fully acknowledged by a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, “chapters” of which have been seen in a number of solo shows over the past several years. This exhibition is an important achievement for its curators, Deborah Wye and Alicia Legg, as well as for the artist. It contains nearly all the major pieces made by the artist beginning with the anthropomorphic Woman/House paintings of the ‘40s on through the carved stacked wooden figures of the ’40s and ’50s, the dense earthbound plasters and latex sculptures of the ’60s and ’70s, both of Bourgeois’s environmental installations, and ending with a small selection of her more recent work, including the frail welded-steel Empty Houses and the massive marble Woman House ’81.

The organizers have incorporated into this presentation the fruits of what is the first scholarly attempt to account for the full variety and complexity of Bourgeois’s art. Not only that, but unlike many recent retrospectives devoted to the “complete works” artists already secure within the modernist hierarchy, this exhibition combines its art-historical responsibilities with the Modern’s original and more partisan ambition, which was to use its power to challenge the broadest possible audience with difficult and little-known work. It is no small accomplishment to have fulfilled that aim.

(There are, however, liabilities inherent in such attention. Any independent artist must be cautious about adoption by even the most accommodating institutions, since the interest of those institutions is primarily in the work completed, while the concern of the artist is with the open-ended work at hand. There are also, given the didactic role of the museum, dangers facing the work shown, dangers compounded by an uneasy public’s need to have its discomfort soothed. The greater the intractability of the art offered museum-goers, the more urgent and distorting that public’s compulsion to explain and thus control what is otherwise instinctively fears. These are the predictable and manageable hazards of official embrace.)

Since the late ’70s when research for this exhibition was begun, Bourgeois has flourished, but the coordinates of taste and power have undergone a drastic shift. A widespread impatience with mechanistic thinking about purity and progress persists, but the freewheeling confidence and artistic openness it initially inspired have in many quarters been suspended, and the wondrous artistic miscegenation it sanctioned seems newly suspect. However, the most damaging assaults on pluralist vitality have so far been economic. The lessened availability of public grants for artists, along with the incursion of European artists into the American art market and a widespread recession psychology, has helped to create a mood of increasing conservatism among art professionals on this side of the Atlantic. As a consequence, the formal volatility that characterizes the art of the last decade had been preempted by the requirements of a revived “star system”. Somewhat misleadingly presented as partaking of an “expressionist impulse,” selected concerns and mannerisms of ’70s art have been abruptly consolidated into the ideologically and commercially viable style often called “Neo-Expressionism”. Still worse, the critical language summoned to justify this flip-flop has a familiar Manichaean ring. Once again we are being restricted to an arbitrary opposition of the gestural and procedural, the organic and the geometric, the passionate and the cerebral.

To further legitimize and extend the authority of “Neo Expressionism,” writers have been busy discovering its antecedents and annexing the mythic systems associated with them. Bourgeois, with her growing notoriety, presents a special temptation, since she has explored so many dimensions of personal symbolism in her art, and since her life would seem to be a labyrinth of private and art-historical legends. But Bourgeois will be no more docile a presence within the new expressionism than she has been within her other movements that seemingly absorbed her, and those who would annex her will soon find her taking refuge in the intricate lair of her mythologies. For, despite the man ways in which her life and apparent motivations seem to confirm received notions of the solitary creator and the steady evolution of art history, her art and self-presentation are fundamentally subversive.

Temperamentally unable to accept anything as given, she has consistently questioned the assumptions of those who would compartmentalize art-making according to a priori ideas of what art should be or do. The explicit “bad taste” of some of her subjects and the unkempt look of many of her finished pieces are to a degree confrontational, nut her fundamental defiance of authority is as much a matter f discreet stubbornness as it is of obvious aggression. She has simply followed the dictates of instinct and of her materials, regardless of the rules that are violated in the process. And so, in response to inspiration and circumstance of her sculpture may be poured, carved, modeled or constructed, either figurative or abstract, overtly narrative of virtually mute. Indeed, Bourgeois has been a perpetual sapper beneath the walls that enclose the separate dominions of modernism; subversion, like humor, is the weapon of those who fully understand the forces at work in the world but have been denied direct power over them. It is the polymorphous “style” of art in no-man’s-land.

When looking back on Bourgeois’s relation to the art of her time it is therefore more important to examine the extent to which she did not belong to the various groups with which she was connected than to establish belatedly these associations. The “one among others” is a recurrent image in her sculpture, and it was a central social and emotional reality of her life. Much of the eloquence of her speech and the beauty of her work comes from her capacity to use the ideologically loaded notion of “alienation” and its qualifier “ambivalence” while returning them to their matter-of-fact human meaning. Thus, one may see Bourgeois’s work as in some respects commentary on the artistic alliances she experienced as personal relationships.

For example, though she speaks of herself emphatically as an American artist, and though she knew well and liked most of the important painters and sculptors of the ‘50s, she does not see herself as part of that enclave. She had little interest in the American brand of Surrealism, nor the turbulent painterliness it engendered. Moreover, she was held back, as were most women, by the inordinate success of a handful of men publicly recognized as the “movement.” Unlike some of her sex, however, she chose not to engage directly the Promethean ambition and sometimes macho rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism-nor did she feed on resentment. Envy is simply, in her word, unrealistic. She responded instead with a practical, almost ferocious patience, and it was a patience that rewarded her with the last word. The form this delayed retort has taken is a characteristic mixture of purely sculptural invention and an unembarrassed realism. Thus, the wry phallic monuments and appendages such as the Janus pieces or Sleep II can in part be read as ironic observations on the priapic posturing of the ‘50s and after. In them the potent succumb to a perfectly natural deflation and the proud and menacing symbols of masculinity are revealed as vulnerable and vaguely ridiculous. This is not ritual castration but a bemused and at times nearly affectionate contemplation of spent power.

When it comes to those artists Bourgeois names as her father figures-Breton, Duchamp and the Surrealists who took refuge in New York-she is not so forgiving. Quoting La Rochefoucauld, she observes that “En France, le ridicule tue”; it is the masters of irony named above whom Bourgeois in her turn subjects to ridicule and desires at least to wound. For many American artists, the unanticipated arrival of these magisterial remnants of the European avant-garde signaled the end of provincial isolation and the beginning of direct competition. For Bourgeois, who had known many of them before and had observed their coterie politics, their presence was a mixed blessing. As a student in Paris, she had been drawn to Leger, Gromaire and especially Paul Colin, but since her arrival in America in 1938 her world had shifted from the formal clarity of Cubism toward an art responsive to conflicting psychological impulses. Undeniably the proximity of Surrealists affected this change in direction but Bourgeois deeply resented the indifference they demonstrated toward what she was doing.

It must, of course, be said that her own career was at tat time in an embryonic stage of development-she was 27 upon arriving in New York and was not to have her first solo show until 7 years later. What rankles nevertheless, is in fact that this esthetic Com-intern was in its sexual politics so essentially reactionary. Dependent upon the support of select group pf rich women patrons, its leaders demonstrated virtually no active interest in women artists who did not in addition serve as economic or sexual providers. Moreover, in their own work they almost always subjected women to on form or another of exotic objectification. The fact remains, then, that however close Bourgeois was to individuals within the group-she speaks often of Miro and is careful to exempt him from her critique of others-and whatever the Surrealist affinities of her early paintings and engravings Bourgeois was never a full and acknowledged member of the Surrealist elite in this country.

Being ignored bred desire for revenge, and that revenge has two aspects. One is seen in the maw-environment Bourgeois called The Destruction of the Father, which is a cannibalistic burlesque in which the artistic father is devoured by those condemned for so long to tolerate his pomposities. The more complex revenge has been Bourgeois’s synthesis of Surrealism’s use of the unconscious with the sculptural simplicity of Cubism. This she has accomplished by means of a body of work that itself seems to be of dual demeanor-dividing, on the one hand, into those pieces, usually done in luxurious materials like marble, alabaster or onyx, that have been very carefully planned, worked and finished, and, on the other hand, those that have been realized more casually, even insouciantly, in a variety of more yielding mediums such as wood, latex, plaster and wax. She has pushed the poised eccentricity of Ernst, Arp, and Brancusi to the limits of imbalance, or, at the other extreme, has left her forms in a delicate state where they are barely distinguishable from their primary, inchoate material. She has given an emotionally determined precariousness and sexually evocative weight to her shapes and so transformed the controlled and sign-based improprieties of orthodox Surrealism into a physical and intuitively perceived expressiveness. And while so much Surrealist art has ultimately found itself quite comfortable in the best homes, Bourgeois is rivaled only by Giacometti in the making o “disagreeable,” undomesticatable objects.

At the same time, Bourgeois herself has repeatedly insisted upon the narrative content on her sculpture, a content which she sees as emphatically autobiographical in origin. Certainly the childhood events around which her own public explanations of her work revolve are themselves fascinating. As once again recounted in the catalogue and in a taped slide show accompanying the exhibition, they involve a delightful but philandering father, a quietly powerful mother, and the father’s mistress, Sadie, who was kept in the house as an English tutor for the children. With Louise often in the midst of these adult intrigues, the other characters are an older and apparently passive sister, a younger brother unable to live up to what was expected of him, and the workers in the family tapestry business who participate in the daily life of the family and act as a chorus for its internal dramas. There are glimpses of life on the Riviera in the ‘20s, details of artisanal pragmatism, and intimations of the terrible pain caused by the divided loyalties of all concerned. What is most important about this story, however, is not its richness in detail, but the archetypal roles played by its cast and the almost infinite variety of emotional nuance it evokes in both teller and listener. We are thus confronted with the persuasive reality that echoes the dialectics of both modern psychology and classical myth, in which gods and demiurges act out their desires with the paradoxical combination of fickleness, cruelty and powerful constancy we accept as inevitable. It is the very sense of inevitability that allows these legends so fluid a range of reference.

It is the same when one applies the private myths of Bourgeois’s life to her work. What is remarkable is not the determinism of that relationship, but the extraordinary variety to which it gives rise. As with myth, the generative principle is metamorphosis. Just as the gods vacillate between disruptive whimsy and destructive anger, changing themselves or men without warning to beasts or trees or stone, each quality or image of Bourgeois’s world is subject to unexpected transformation into its opposite or into a composite of supposed opposites.

A single scratchy pen stroke may describe wave motion, undulating terrain, biomorphic quiverings, vegetable striations, the fall of drapery or an avalanche of breasts, bodies become architecture, pure ovoids sprout organic growths, a landscape evolves into phalluses gathered in a social huddle. Mathematical intervals, the convoluted shapes of an intuitive topology and mutant fleshiness all merge. What was protruding is then hollow, what was hard becomes soft, what was efficiently made with fragile, available materials like latex or plaster reappears with a classical permanence and completeness in marble. Male changes to female, female to male, and both are merged into an indissoluble androgyny.

It is maybe simplest, however, to see the relation between the narrative and the visual in Bourgeois’s work as being comparable to the correspondence between the text of her small book He Disappeared into Complete Silence and the engravings which accompany it. Set against each other on opposite pages, these parallel sequences do not illustrate one another, nor do they develop separately; rather, they are like companion ellipses, which rotate around and partially describe a common axis. That axis-the inescapable and unromantic conflict of the genders and their loneliness and cruelty of possession-is a product of memory, memory as an approximate and creative act rather than as a psychological, literal reconstruction. In this respect Bourgeois’s art strikingly suggests the critical paradigm articulated by Gaston Bachelard. Unsatisfied by any form of determinism and always cognizant of the fact that we are receptive, perhaps most receptive, to art whose specific origins we do not know, Bachelard separated “metaphor,” which he judged a direct correlation of intended meaning to artifact, from what he understood to be the phenomenological existence of images-entities with their own resonance and “being” which established themselves in the space between the artist’s conscious purposes and the critical intelligence of the nonartist. Bourgeois’s sculptures seem best taken on terms such as these rather than as bits of expressionist catharsis or anachronistic animism.

Given that Bourgeois is a maker of such images, it is impossible ever fully and precisely to account for their genesis or to exhaust their layered mysteries. Even the most tentative pieces seem essential to her enterprise, and for all the repetitions of form within this body of work, for all its tangential connection to other work of the period, Bourgeois never imitates herself nor uses uncritically what is around her. Hers is an accomplishment which, with all its outrageousness and singularity, is mannered, coherent and beautiful in the way only something self-sustaining can be. What she offers to other artists is not a matter of solutions to problems of style, nor a maternal permission to commit funk, but rather the example of someone with the vision to make truly important art and the intransigence to do it even when nobody took much notice.