David Salle

Louise Bour­geois: An Un­fold­ing Por­trait an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mu­seum of Modern Art, New York City Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion by Deb­o­rah Wye In­ti­mate Geome­tries: The Art and Life of Louise Bour­geois by Robert Storr

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - David Salle

Louise Bour­geois:

An Un­fold­ing Por­trait an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mu­seum of Modern Art, New York City, Septem­ber 24, 2017–Jan­uary 28, 2018. Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion by Deb­o­rah Wye.

MoMA, 248 pp., $55.00

In­ti­mate Geome­tries:

The Art and Life of Louise Bour­geois by Robert Storr.

Mona­celli, 828 pp., $150.00

After we’re done shak­ing our heads at what they had to en­dure, we project onto our long-lived women artists a mys­tique that’s as old as history— that of the sor­cer­ess or the good witch. These women have a se­cret. We want them to tell us ev­ery­thing, but maybe they don’t want to. If we can gain ac­cess to their mag­i­cal work­shop, squeez­ing through a nar­row cor­ri­dor to find the door, we might be privy to some im­por­tant mys­ter­ies. The veils will be un­wound, and fi­nally we will look life in the face and weep for all that was lost to get us here.

In her long life, Louise Bour­geois ex­pe­ri­enced both ex­tremes of the fe­male artist story—marginal­iza­tion, even in­vis­i­bil­ity early on, and decades later a fierce and pas­sion­ate fol­low­ing by younger artists and cu­ra­tors. Her sta­tus was based on an in­de­pen­dence from fash­ion, and on call­ing at­ten­tion to emo­tions that most peo­ple pre­fer to keep hid­den: shame, dis­gust, fear of aban­don­ment, jeal­ousy, anger. Oc­ca­sion­ally, joy or won­der would sur­face, like a break in the clouds. But Bour­geois was an artist, not a ther­a­pist. Her imag­i­na­tion was tied to forms, and how to make them ex­pres­sive. Her gift was to rep­re­sent in­choate and hard-tograsp feel­ings in ways that seem di­rect and un­fil­tered.

Deb­o­rah Wye, the Mu­seum of Modern Art’s chief cu­ra­tor emerita of prints and il­lus­trated books, has put to­gether an el­e­gant and re­veal­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of Bour­geois’s graphic work, prints, and printed books—some 265 images, made with a wide variety of tech­niques, all from the mu­seum’s ex­ten­sive hold­ings, along with re­lated draw­ings, early paint­ings, and a small se­lec­tion of sculp­tures that show their rec­i­proc­ity with the drawn forms. Wye, who or­ga­nized the first Bour­geois ret­ro­spec­tive at MoMA in 1982, as well as a sur­vey of Bour­geois’s draw­ings in 1994, has de­voted much of her pro­fes­sional life to the artist and knew her well, and this show must be some­thing of a vic­tory lap for her.

On first im­pres­sion, the books and other works on pa­per seen against the mu­seum’s dove-gray or Vene­tian red walls are ab­sorb­ing; they pull you in. But to call it a print show would be a lit­tle mis­lead­ing. Bour­geois was for­ever al­ter­ing her work, mak­ing ad­di­tions and ad­just­ments to print­ing proofs as they oc­curred to her in the mo­ment, and the ma­jor­ity of the prints in the ex­hi­bi­tion ex­ist in sev­eral dif­fer­ent states, or stages of devel­op­ment. They are of­ten added to, painted, or drawn on— some­times just a dot of color, other times reimag­ined com­pletely. What we are re­ally look­ing at are paint­ings on pa­per, which take as their start­ing point a printed im­age as a first layer. Over the course of her marathon ca­reer, Bour­geois worked in a wide range of medi­ums and for­mats, from en­grav­ings just five inches tall to sculp­tural as­sem­blages sprawl­ing across vast mu­seum spa­ces. For a long pe­riod in the 1950s, she was de­pressed and cre­atively blocked, and be­gan long-term psy­cho­anal­y­sis, which seems to have helped. She emerged from her slump as a pro­tean worka­holic from whose hand is­sued ware­houses full of ma­te­ri­ally and emo­tion­ally di­verse stuff. Even within this fo­cused ex­hi­bi­tion we can see the range of Bour­geois’s sen­si­bil­ity, from in­ti­mate vis­ual di­arist to stage de­signer man­qué, in­tent on dom­i­nat­ing the mu­seum ex­pe­ri­ence with her the­atri­cal mise-en-scènes.

There’s a dis­arm­ing pre­lude as you en­ter the show: a wall of thirty-six small­ish images, col­lec­tively ti­tled The Frag­ile (2007), that high­lights the play­ful side of Bour­geois’s graphic art. Most are eco­nom­i­cal line draw­ings, one im­age to a sheet, some aug­mented with washes of color. There are two mo­tifs: spi­ders and their webs, and women with greatly en­larged, pen­du­lous

breasts. The spi­ders have hu­man faces, and the heads of the women, all tiny in pro­por­tion to their bod­ies, have a grin­ning coun­te­nance such as a child might draw. One draw­ing shows the rudi­men­tary pro­file of a wo­man’s face, with a high-bridged nose and thin lips, whom we rec­og­nize as the artist her­self. This head has no eyes, per­haps be­cause they’re no longer needed.

These draw­ings are like so­phis­ti­cated car­toons mi­nus the cap­tions; you can imag­ine some of them printed on cock­tail nap­kins; oth­ers would make strik­ing tat­toos. In ad­di­tion to vis­ual hu­mor, the suite shows off Bour­geois’s easy mas­tery of con­tour draw­ing, shape, and place­ment. She understood the power of white space, how images and marks could be moved around the page for ef­fect, and how some­times mak­ing an im­age smaller gives it a louder voice. In­ter­est­ingly, al­most all of her images are drawn from a full frontal view, headon, like spec­i­mens pressed onto glass. There are few three-quar­ter views of any­thing, per­haps be­cause that would im­ply a world too lo­cal, too real, in­stead of the sym­bolic range that is her realm.

Once in­side the main gal­leries, the ex­hi­bi­tion be­gins with sev­eral il­lus­trated books and sin­gle prints from 1946 to 1949, all of which still look fresh to­day. Bour­geois was from the start a high-level il­lus­tra­tor and book de­signer, and the over­all tone of these en­grav­ings, which fea­ture mo­tifs of build­ings—towers or chim­neys for the most part—com­bined with women’s bod­ies or parts of bod­ies, is one of earnest mod­ernism; she is al­ready adept at plac­ing her sym­bolic images in an emo­tion­ally sug­ges­tive pic­to­rial space. A 1984 vari­a­tion on her fa­mous Femme Mai­son se­ries (which orig­i­nated in 1946) fea­tures a nude wo­man from the waist down, the top half re­placed by a mul­ti­story building with arch­ways and high win­dows, with the hand of one thin arm wanly wav­ing to the up­per-left cor­ner. Printed on a ground of bright salmon pink, it re­mains a pun­gent and in­ci­sive logo of fem­i­nist art.

The space in these il­lus­tra­tions, to­gether with their small size, gives us a child’s-eye view of life—some of the forms loom above eye level, and the in­te­rior spa­ces are tightly framed and slightly claus­tro­pho­bic; we see only cor­ners, or rooms crowded with lad­ders go­ing nowhere. Ei­ther there’s no place to stand or one is out­side, in a too-open space. The mood is chilly and gray, un­set­tled and un­set­tling. In this early phase, the artist whom Bour­geois most closely re­sem­bles in terms of tone, touch, and point of view is that other in­ti­mate fan­ta­sist and chron­i­cler of the doomed fam­ily, Ed­ward Gorey. The dif­fer­ence, of course, is that Gorey draws the mon­ster plain, while Bour­geois only im­plies it.

Dis­persed through the first few rooms are ex­am­ples of Bour­geois’s early carved and painted wood sculp­tures, and they are all pretty much heart­break­ing in the right­ness of their forms and col­ors. Pil­lar (1949–1950), Fig­ure (1954), and Forêt (Night Gar­den) (1953) are among her best early works, made some years be­fore she turned to more elab­o­rate and more nar­ra­tive con­struc­tions made with a variety of in­dus­trial ma­te­ri­als. Had she re­mained on this ear­lier path, Bour­geois might have been the three­d­i­men­sional equiv­a­lent of a deeply in­ner-di­rected artist like the painter For­rest Bess. That, how­ever, would have meant re­nounc­ing a cer­tain am­bi­tion to be heard.

If she wasn’t in­ter­ested in be­ing that kind of sculp­tor, Bour­geois con­tin­ued to elab­o­rate a more in­timist sen­si­bil­ity in her draw­ings. Panic, claus­tro­pho­bia, frustration, help­less­ness, and en­nui, as well as a strange fa­tal­is­tic ela­tion, were her sub­jects, and she went at them with a com­bi­na­tion of in­tu­ition and de­sign sense.

Bour­geois was a poet of tran­si­tions, and of things en­ter­ing other things. She grasped the mal­leabil­ity of pic­to­rial space—how to shape the warp and woof of it into a vis­ual logic, and how to make that plas­tic­ity re­late to our bod­ily and emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence. In one un­ti­tled wa­ter­color from 2004, swollen tubu­lar or pod­like shapes ap­pear to rend the hor­i­zon­tal plane of col­ored washes, to sug­gest forms both un­der­wa­ter and in the air. To this graphic so­phis­ti­ca­tion, Bour­geois added an in­sis­tence on

the specifics—phys­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and so­cial—of fe­male ex­pe­ri­ence.

This as­pect of her work is allper­va­sive, and man­i­fests it­self gen­er­ally in biomor­phism and the at­ten­tion given to es­cutcheons and con­tact points, as well as cer­tain bod­ily de­tails—nip­ples, ori­fices, and other sites of ex­change, points of en­try and ex­cre­tion, body cav­i­ties, pass-throughs—things that sig­nify “in­side-out­ness” gen­er­ally. In all of this, Bour­geois is way out in front of the com­pe­ti­tion. Even Pi­casso, that cav­a­lier re­ar­ranger and mor­pher of hu­man anatomy, can only re­ally look at the body from the out­side. For Bour­geois, the in­side, with all its del­i­cacy and power, is the out­side. She moves eas­ily from out­side to in­side and back again.

Born in Paris in 1911, Bour­geois suf­fered more than the usual num­ber of griev­ous blows to the psy­che, and her in­ner life stayed tightly wrapped around their mem­ory. War, ill­ness, sex­ual jeal­ousy, men­tal in­sta­bil­ity were all things she wit­nessed in her first decade, and she never for­got—or for­gave—any of them. As a teenager she learned that the at­trac­tive young English­woman who lived with the fam­ily as a tu­tor was also her fa­ther’s mis­tress, and this be­trayal in par­tic­u­lar was some­thing she never got over. In ad­di­tion, or per­haps in re­sponse, her mother was frag­ile and of­ten ill, and young Louise be­came her com­pan­ion at var­i­ous spas and treat­ment cen­ters; she was released from her care­taker role by her mother’s death when she was twenty-one. After the loss of her mother, and en­cour­aged by her charm­ing and tyran­ni­cal fa­ther, Bour­geois started a small busi­ness sell­ing works on pa­per, prints, and il­lus­trated books out of a cor­ner of the fam­ily’s ta­pes­try work­shop on the Boule­vard Saint-Ger­main. To ac­quire her stock, she scoured the auc­tion houses and book deal­ers, and she seems to have ab­sorbed, al­most overnight, the dom­i­nant graphic styles of the day. She had a par­tic­u­lar affin­ity for Bon­nard and Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as other artists who used the il­lus­trated book form, which was then in vogue. Some­thing about these livres d’artiste, as they were known—the way they com­bined text and pic­tures, and the way the im­age was printed from en­grav­ing or etch­ing plates, the whole sat­is­fy­ing feel in the hand of beau­ti­fully made pa­per em­bossed with rec­tan­gles of finely drawn tones of gray—formed the tem­plate for how Bour­geois would think about her own art, on and off, for the rest of her life.

At age twenty-six, she met and mar­ried the Amer­i­can art his­to­rian Robert Gold­wa­ter, and from then on made her home in New York. It was at the Art Stu­dents League that Bour­geois made her first en­grav­ings and wood­block prints on small sheets of pa­per. These early works are mod­est but graph­i­cally so­phis­ti­cated. She quickly moved on to mak­ing her own il­lus­trated books, which com­bined story with im­age, in many ways a nat­u­ral fit for the pre­co­cious be­gin­ner, who early on rec­og­nized that her own per­sonal history was to be her cre­ative well­spring. She also had the abil­ity to see in a glimpse, and later re­call, an im­age that could carry com­plex feel­ings, as in her etch­ing Thomp­son Street (1946), which de­picts a Goreyesque gloomy fig­ure stand­ing in a door­way; it was in­spired by see­ing a young pros­ti­tute in her neigh­bor­hood.

Bour­geois’s work of the late 1940s and be­yond looks very much like a con­tin­u­a­tion of the Sur­re­al­ist sen­si­bil­ity. She her­self down­played any con­nec­tion Self Por­trait,

to the Sur­re­al­ists; she did not see her­self as their lega­tee, pos­si­bly be­cause she knew all the ones who had fled Europe for New York dur­ing the war. (Although there is no record of it, as a French speaker it’s pos­si­ble she ex­pe­ri­enced first­hand An­dré Bre­ton’s fla­grant misog­yny, and that would have been rea­son enough to take some dis­tance.) In the way that some­times the full flow­er­ing of a move­ment only hap­pens after ev­ery­one has gone home, Bour­geois seems, at this re­move, the true heir to Gior­gio de Chirico, Max Ernst, An­dré Mas­son, and Joan Miró. It’s as though she un­corked the ge­nie in their bot­tle.

Some of her draw­ings from the late 1940s look like they could have been made by Magritte, had he been able to get be­yond his pre­cious sub­ject mat­ter. The Sur­re­al­ists’ pro­fessed be­lief in the power of the un­con­scious to guide the hand seems pal­try com­pared to hers. There is as well a strong un­der­cur­rent in her work of the shaman­is­tic and totemic forms of Na­tive Amer­i­can and other tribal art, which also greatly in­ter­ested the Sur­re­al­ists. One way to think about Bour­geois’s art is to imag­ine Sur­re­al­ism, that most ado­les­cent as well as fe­male-ob­jec­ti­fy­ing of art move­ments, re­tooled by a grown-up wo­man. The MoMA show gives us an artist who chan­neled her Sur­re­al­ist in­cli­na­tions into a di­rect, im­pro­vi­sa­tional way of work­ing. Should any­one miss the more ex­tro­verted or pub­lic side of her work, the mu­seum’s atrium is home to one of Bour­geois’s crowd-pleas­ing spi­ders. This one has legs of steel (all eight of them), the up­per joints of which reach twenty-one feet off the floor. Spi­der (1997) dif­fers from some of its cousins in that the space formed in­side the arach­nid legs is taken up by a cylin­dri­cal en­clo­sure of steel mesh bolted to a thin steel frame, es­sen­tially a wire cage roughly fif­teen feet tall and ten feet in di­am­e­ter that one en­ters through a nar­row open­ing. On the in­side, per­fume bot­tles, bits of bone, pen­du­lous shapes of cast rub­ber, and sec­tions of ta­pes­try have been tied to the wire mesh, like fruit to a sukkah.

What is a graphic sen­si­bil­ity? It be­gins with a sen­si­tiv­ity to the ma­te­rial, the pa­per or can­vas, and the point of im­pact, the place where the tool hits the sur­face, as some­thing that stays con­tin­u­ally alive. Think of Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat, teacher and stu­dent, fig­u­ra­tively speak­ing. The hand that grips a piece of char­coal as it touches down on the pa­per is like a phono­graph nee­dle skip­ping lightly across a scratchy LP. With all the skips and floats and the in­ter­mit­tent sink­ing into the record’s grooves, mu­sic starts to fill the air.

What are the hall­marks of Bour­geois’s graphic style? She uses mostly short or medium-length lines made by pen­cil, en­grav­ing tool, or brush, and the marks, all mov­ing more or less in one di­rec­tion, but not rigidly so, are bun­dled to­gether in loose, over­lap­ping rows—much like a naive artist’s ren­der­ing of hair, or like med­i­cal draw­ings of mus­cle fibers bunched to­gether in long strings. These bun­dles ac­cu­mu­late to make forms, but have no mass to speak of. They take up space but don’t weigh much. The repet­i­tive, di­rec­tional lines call up a num­ber of as­so­ci­a­tions, from the art of the Pa­cific North­west Na­tive Amer­i­cans to Out­sider Art. Bour­geois is adept at out­lin­ing shapes with a thin, skip­ping line, a cousin to Andy Warhol’s ink-and-blot­ter-pa­per line, which is it­self de­rived from the bro­ken-line il­lus­tra­tions of Ben Shahn.

You feel that Bour­geois wants to dig down to the ba­sic fiber of form it­self en route to cre­at­ing an im­age; it’s what draw­ing can do, after all. A sub­set of the marks that she uses, es­pe­cially those made with a brush and ink, have the length and start-and-stop qual­ity of a stitch of thread or em­broi­dery: graphic stitches, which are bun­dled to­gether and be­come in turn the building blocks for many of her images. These in­clude the skein or hank of hair or yarn, as well as nerve and mus­cle fibers, in­clud­ing flayed skin and tis­sue, which clus­ter, bale up, and twist, and can be­come in some works un­du­lat­ing cur­tains of hair­like walls, or take the form of river cur­rents and ocean waves. The equiv­a­lency that Bour­geois draws be­tween hair or yarn and mus­cle fibers or tis­sue is one of her prin­ci­pal in­ven­tions. Hair, women’s hair, is all over Bour­geois’s art. It is the per­fect graphic el­e­ment; like wa­ter, it can go any­where and take vir­tu­ally any shape. It can flow like a river, pass through key­holes, or twist around an­other form, stran­gling it. It can take the form of a fly­ing car­pet, or be made to cover, or smother, an­other sur­face. Or it can be parted to re­veal what’s un­der­neath. Hair is some­thing to hide be­hind, or a me­mento left be­hind. The eroti­cism of hair was also a Sur­re­al­ist sta­ple, and Bour­geois makes good use of it.

One draw­ing—Hair (1948)—lays out the vo­cab­u­lary that would re­main in place for more than sixty years. Us­ing a brush and ink, Bour­geois draws a fe­male fig­ure as two ver­ti­cal col­umns of sacks topped by a fea­ture­less oval head, the whole fig­ure en­veloped in a cas­cade of hair that flows down both sides of the body, from the top of the head al­most down to the feet. The roughly al­mond shape of the stream­ing-out mass of hair that frames the pod shapes, all seamed down the mid­dle and topped off with a lit­tle but­ton head, give the im­age an­other, labial read­ing. It’s like go­ing in­side Courbet’s The Ori­gin of the World (1866) and com­ing back out again as a dop­pel­gänger in dis­guise. The de­tail con­tains the whole, like an im­age out of Nabokov—the world re­flected in a soap bub­ble.

An­other of Bour­geois’s re­cur­rent mo­tifs is the pro­tu­ber­ance, with its ready as­so­ci­a­tions to bod­ily forms— breasts, sag­ging but­tocks, scrota, and also tree forms, fun­gus of all sorts, drops of wa­ter; all the swelling, droop­ing, bag­ging forms and shapes in na­ture, any­thing dan­gling or hang­ing, any or­ganic and even in­or­ganic form that is sub­ject to grav­ity, which is to say just about ev­ery­thing. Some­times the pen­dula gather them­selves up and re­verse di­rec­tion, ris­ing up from the bot­tom of the gar­den or the ocean floor.

I can’t think of any­thing in the canon by male artists after Leonardo that does much with the body from the in­side. The way Bour­geois ad­dressed the ba­sic no­tion of the body, es­pe­cially the fe­male body, as hav­ing an in­side might be her big­gest legacy. One mod­est black-and-white print from a 1989–1990 port­fo­lio sim­ply ti­tled Anatomy has a res­o­nance and a poignancy far big­ger than its mod­est size. It shows what looks like the lower sec­tion of a spinal col­umn, with the blade­like lower ribs curv­ing out­ward from the cen­tral core of bone. What makes the im­age ar­rest­ing is the slightly up­an­gled point of view that gives ac­cess to a tiny open­ing within a re­cess at the bot­tom in the col­umn’s cen­ter, and just above, two rows of three nar­row “win­dows,” sim­i­lar to those in the Femme Mai­son draw­ings. A di­rec­tional en­ergy leads the eye up, by im­pli­ca­tion, into and through the in­te­rior spa­ces of the bone, through the core of the core, so to speak, to a new realm of vul­ner­a­ble body feel­ing. There’s an in­ti­ma­tion of the em­balmer’s art to it, the hook with a wad of cot­ton in­serted deep into the body to stop flu­ids from leak­ing.

The feel­ing of “up in­side and through the mid­dle” of the body is present in

other works such as Torso, Self-Por­trait (1963–1964) and Janus Fleurie (1968), as well as some of the large etch­ings, My In­ner Life (2008) and Just Like Me (2007). These de­pict the body re­duced to pods and tubes coiled around a cen­tral axis. For once, “gut-wrench­ing” is not a fig­ure of speech. The artist digs deep within her­self, imag­ines her own anatomy break­ing into pieces. She shows us the re­sults of her own au­topsy. Aided by a small team of as­sis­tants and print­ers, Bour­geois pro­duced in her last years two sep­a­rate suites of large soft-ground etch­ings, both re­mark­able in their own way. In the first suite, the sixty-inch-tall ver­ti­cal sheets al­low Bour­geois to play out on a much larger scale the rec­i­proc­ity be­tween plant forms and those of the body. In one print, ti­tled Swelling (2007–2008), in which three dif­fer­ent states, one with added color, are rep­re­sented, Bour­geois man­ages to cre­ate the im­pres­sion that a stack of forms—part beanstalk, part ver­te­brae, part uterus or kid­neys— has burst up­ward, clear­ing the con­cen­tric waves of ei­ther wa­ter or soil or pri­mor­dial muck at the bot­tom half of the im­age. In­side the trunk of the ris­ing, swollen col­umn are smaller pod shapes, like seeds, rock ba­bies, or jelly­beans. “Swelling,” a verb sel­dom as­so­ci­ated with mu­seum art, is a won­der­ful ti­tle, and the kines­thetic feel­ing of an or­gan­ism thrust­ing up­ward is pal­pa­ble, and also graph­i­cally tight. The last ma­jor prints Bour­geois com­pleted are in a hor­i­zon­tal for­mat sixty inches wide and fea­ture a re­peated mo­tif of two loosely braided lin­ear or tubu­lar forms that di­vide the rec­tan­gle di­ag­o­nally from lower left to up­per right. Across four­teen sep­a­rate sheets, she added ad­di­tional im­agery and marks in pen­cil, wa­ter­color, and gouache (mostly red) that pulse and spread and course across the length of the pa­per. Free and loose, with great di­rec­tional en­ergy, the prints, col­lec­tively ti­tled à l’In­fini (2008), are pos­si­bly Bour­geois’s most ebul­lient works.

Other late works, like the tapestryand needle­point-cov­ered life-size heads from 2002, made when Bour­geois was ninety-one, achieve that sweet spot some­where be­tween the dec­o­ra­tive and the dis­turb­ing, but lean­ing to­ward the lat­ter. They re­sem­ble masks worn by Mex­i­can wrestlers or S&M gear, but with pat­terns bor­rowed from rugs that look, at that scale, like Rorschach tests. The first time I saw a group of them in a mu­seum vit­rine, in that in­stant be­fore you rec­og­nize the fa­mil­iar in­side the new, I let out an au­di­ble What the fuck?


Robert Storr’s In­ti­mate Geome­tries: The Art and Life of Louise Bour­geois, schol­ar­ship, biog­ra­phy, par­ti­san ar­gu­ment, and sub­jec­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tion are all in­ter­twined. The book was more than twenty years in the writ­ing, and Storr’s in­volve­ment with Bour­geois goes back even fur­ther. He was deeply at­tracted to her as a vi­sion­ary: as dif­fi­cult as she could some­times be, she em­bod­ied his ideal of an au­then­tic artist.

A painter him­self, as well as a for­mer se­nior cu­ra­tor in MoMA’s Depart­ment of Paint­ing and Sculp­ture, Storr is well grounded in the phys­i­cal re­al­i­ties of how works of art are ac­tu­ally made. His de­scrip­tions of Bour­geois’s draw­ing tropes—what they are, how they look, and what they mean—are far and away the best writ­ing on her work that I’ve seen. The book is a ma­jor achieve­ment, not just of schol­ar­ship, but also as a record of the in­ter­sec­tion of two sen­si­bil­i­ties, artist and writer, and of per­son­hood as the lens through which all art must in­evitably be viewed. It also sup­ports my be­lief that it takes a very long time to re­ally know any­thing about an artist, to in­ter­nal­ize her ideas and sen­si­bil­ity. The hun­dreds of draw­ings re­pro­duced in Storr’s book flesh out the pic­ture of Bour­geois as a graphic ge­nius that the MoMA show ini­ti­ates. Storr quotes a line that she wrote in a 1948 di­ary: “My draw­ings are an arse­nal of forms that I love.” Her choice of words is re­veal­ing. Cer­tainly “forms” is the word that points us in the right di­rec­tion; whatever else she was or has come to stand for, Bour­geois was pri­mar­ily en­gaged in find­ing and in­vent­ing forms, and it’s that search, about which she was re­mark­ably clear-eyed and ob­jec­tive, that makes her work so po­tent. The word “arse­nal” is pure Bour­geois. There is no mis­tak­ing her in­ten­tion to lay siege to some­thing.

Bour­geois’s work found com­mon cause with the art world of the 1970s, as at­ten­tion be­gan to be paid to women artists. It was a seis­mic shift, and it’s still go­ing on. Although she did not iden­tify with Fem­i­nist Art as such, Bour­geois was very ac­tive in the move­ment, and its tri­umphal tide raised the boat of her ca­reer. She was a ready-made ex­am­ple of an artist whose im­agery and way of work­ing were seen as spe­cific to her gen­der. Fe­male ex­pe­ri­ence and iden­tity, es­pe­cially the parts cen­tered on bi­o­log­i­cal pro­cesses like sex, child­birth, and lac­ta­tion, as well as so-called do­mes­tic crafts like rub­bings, weav­ing, em­broi­dery, and sewing: it was no longer nec­es­sary to leave them at the door in order to be taken se­ri­ously as an artist. Many other artists have also worked with fe­male im­agery; in art it’s a mat­ter of what you make out of it. Bour­geois’s art came to promi­nence more as a re­sult of her sin­gu­lar­ity than her team spirit.

Op­por­tu­ni­ties for women de­nied, an in­sti­tu­tional bias to­ward male artists—it is a fa­mil­iar nar­ra­tive. It still goes on, but one hopes less so. Henry Geldzahler, the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum’s first cu­ra­tor of modern and con­tem­po­rary art, used to tell a story on him­self that il­lus­trates the bias against women artists at mid­cen­tury. In 1969, as he was fi­nal­iz­ing what would be­come an epoch-defin­ing ex­hi­bi­tion, “New York Paint­ing and Sculp­ture 1940–1970,” Geldzahler ran into Alice Neel at a party. They were friends; Neel had painted Geldzahler’s por­trait, and ev­ery­one knew she was a se­ri­ous artist, al­beit some­what out of the stylis­tic main­stream. Neel mat­ter-of­factly asked Geldzahler what of hers he wanted for his show. He replied, “Oh Alice, when did you turn pro?” That’s how friends were treated; imag­ine the con­de­scen­sion if you weren’t known at all.

Louise Bour­geois had to over­come many of the same prej­u­dices. Neel was of­ten on the dole, and made great paint­ings for decades be­fore fame found her in the mid-1970s, when she had only an­other ten years to work. Bour­geois, eleven years younger than Neel, was mar­ried to an art his­to­rian, lived in a town­house in the West 20s, and knew just about ev­ery­one in the art world of the 1940s and 1950s, in­clud­ing her early cham­pion Al­fred Barr. Fame fi­nally found her in the early 1980s, when she was nearly sev­enty, with a long way yet to go. She ran out the clock at age ninety-eight, ex­per­i­ment­ing with new ma­te­ri­als and modes of pre­sen­ta­tion al­most to the end.

The MoMA ex­hi­bi­tion gives us an op­por­tu­nity to find both the young wo­man and the mod­ernist in­ven­tor un­der­neath the slyly im­pe­ri­ous grande dame we see on the cover of Storr’s book in the fa­mous Robert Map­plethorpe pho­to­graph from 1982. Now that we have some dis­tance, Bour­geois’s art, left to speak for it­self, is po­tent, for­mally bold, and mys­te­ri­ous. It is some­times alarm­ing, and of­ten beautiful. Its beauty is the re­sult of a con­trolled col­li­sion of forms that are finely tuned to one an­other; its ef­fects seem per­pet­u­ally po­si­tioned be­tween a ma­jor and a mi­nor key. With apolo­gies to Sa­muel Beck­ett, her work might be called pricks and kicks in about equal mea­sure. Let­ters to the Edi­tor: let­ters@ny­books.com. All other cor­re­spon­dence: The New York Re­view of Books, 435 Hud­son Street, Suite 300, New York, NY 10014-3994; mail@ny­books.com. Please in­clude a mail­ing ad­dress with all cor­re­spon­dence. We ac­cept no responsibility for un­so­licited manuscripts. Sub­scrip­tion Ser­vices: ny­books.com/cus­tomer-ser­vice or The New York Re­view of Books, P.O. Box 9310, Big Sandy,TX, 75755-9310, or e-mail nyr­sub@ny­books.info. In the US, call toll-free 800-354-0050. Out­side the US, call 903-636-1101. Sub­scrip­tion rates: US, one year $79.95; in Canada, $95; else­where, $115.

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Copy­right © 2017, NYREV, Inc. All rights re­served. Noth­ing in this pub­li­ca­tion may be re­pro­duced with­out the per­mis­sion of the pub­lisher. The cover date of the next is­sue will be De­cem­ber 21, 2017.

Louise Bour­geois: Femme, 2006

Louise Bour­geois: 2007

Louise Bour­geois, New York City, June 1997; pho­to­graph by Do­minique Nabokov

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