“Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait” was more than a survey of Bourgeois’s prints: it presented a deep analysis of her major themes and motifs by curator Deborah Wye, who has studied her work since the late 1970s. In addition to prints spanning some six decades, it included around a dozen sculptures and several paintings, the overall selection emphasizing the evolution of the artist’s concerns over time and across mediums. The exhibition was structured around several themes that figured prominently in her practice—including abstraction, architecture, and memory—and each section juxtaposed works from different phases of her career. Throughout the presentation, Bourgeois’s experiences as a daughter, wife, and mother were shown to be important sources for her practice. Her life and her art were essentially one and the same thing.
As shown in the exhibition section “Architecture Embodied,” Bourgeois continually returned to ideas she initially put forth in a 1946–47 group of paintings and drawings titled “Femme Maison” (which translates to “housewife,” or, literally, “woman house”). These works depict women with their upper bodies trapped in or transformed into houses. Although Bourgeois was reluctant to call herself a feminist artist, much of her work clearly spoke to women’s experiences, and in the 1970s one of the “Femme Maison” drawings appeared on the cover of Lucy Lippard’s pioneering book on feminist art. Bourgeois revisited the theme of personified architecture in the following decades, as seen in other works on view, such as a small marble sculpture from 1994 of a house with two human eyes inscribed on one of its walls.
The theme can also be seen as morphing into a more general form of psychologically charged geometric abstraction. For instance, the illustrations in He Disappeared into Complete Silence (1946–47), her collection of short stories about loneliness and the loss of human connection, depict vaguely anthropomorphized constructions. More recently, she produced a book of fabric collages and prints on fabric, Ode à l’Oubli (Ode to Forgetfulness, 2002), in which she sewed onto linen hand towels scraps from her trousseau dating back to 1938. The colorful, rhythmically repeating squares, ovals, and wedges have the softened edges and imperfect alignment of hand-sewn pieces and seem to be infused with emotions and memories, as worn and lovingly preserved garments often are.
An exhibition section focused on self-portraiture spanned a breadth of emotion, showing how Bourgeois herself served as a shifting subject in her work. The wall-mounted sculpture Torso, Self-Portrait (1963–64)—a plaster object that looks like an insect’s exoskeleton—seems to reflect uneasy feelings the then-middle-aged artist had about her body. The gouache Self Portrait (2007), by contrast, is a joyous celebration of life, showing a hilarious little figure with its mouth wide open hanging from a colossal breast.
The final gallery displayed Bourgeois’s late masterpiece À l’Infini (To Infinity, 2008)—a set of fourteen large etchings with pencil, gouache, and watercolor additions. In this suite, the artist created variations on a motif she depicted in an earlier etching, the abstract but vaguely anatomical Love and Kisses (2007). Installed in grids on the walls, the À l’Infini prints cast the motif, which consists of three intertwining composition-spanning diagonal bands, in a stunning set of images that bear expressive brush marks, pencil scribbles, and occasional figuration: two lovers locked in an embrace, babies in amniotic sacs, and so on. The nervous energy of the line and agitated, tremulous brushwork bring to mind Cy Twombly’s paintings, but unlike his analytic abstraction, which delved into the semiotics of painted marks, Bourgeois’s images appear tied to the corporeal: the obscure workings of digestive and reproductive systems, the quiet bustle of cellular processes, and the rest of the dark mechanics of bodily functions. While portrayals of female figures, pregnancy, and birth were constants in Bourgeois’s work, her true subject was not women’s experiences but the experience of being human—the exhilaration and tragedy of being born and having a thinking mind locked in a physical body.