This is an important book – a significant undertaking written with great scholarship and integrity and will be of particular relevance to academics and students, but I believe it will be of interest to anyone who has seen and admired the work of such an intriguing artist and wishes to learn more about her life and her creative influences.
Robert Storr, the author, is currently Dean of the Yale School of Art where he has served two tenures. Formerly, between 1990 and 2002, he was a Curator, then Senior Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He has written over 30 books on art and painters including, in 2003, a book on Louise Bourgeois. He knew the artist well for the last thirty years of her life and as such he is eminently qualified to write a detailed account of her life, her work and its influences from a personal and an intellectual perspective.
Anthony d’Offay (2013) has described Louise Bourgeois as one of the four great women artists of the 20th Century citing the others as Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo and Agnes Martin (all of whom have had major retrospectives at Tate Modern in recent years). However, Louise Bourgeois is unique among them in having a creative practice spanning seven decades and incorporating a variety of media including drawing, painting, sculpture, installation, textiles and text. Frances Morris (now Director of Tate Modern) selected Bourgeois’ pieces, Maman (1999) and I do, I undo, I redo (1999) for the opening of Tate Modern in 2000 and perhaps this was the first time that Bourgeois’ work had exposure to the general British public. Since then her work has been shown there at a major retrospective in 2008 and at numerous other British art galleries.
The book follows a template, being organized historically and providing a clear sequential account of the artist’s life including photographs of the people and events described and of contemporaneous work. Each chapter is followed by a Portfolio devoted to larger photographs of selected work relevant to the chapter. Hence, Chapter I, entitled A Family Romance describes Bourgeois’ family life and background and those who influenced her. It describes the origin of her psychological turmoil – still evident years later – and which was to become the seed corn of her work. The Portfolio which follows is devoted to work made during the period 1930 – 1944. The biographical account is not limited to people and events, but incorporates quotes and commentary on Bourgeois’ thinking and other influences which contributed towards her making. This serves as a useful guide when examining the work illustrated in detail.
Chapter II, One and Others overlaps with Bourgeois’ life in Paris and New York and describes the death of her mother and its aftermath and her life as a student of Geometry at the Sorbonne. However, her passion was art and between 1933 and 1938 she studied at the principal art academies in Paris and at various artists’ studios. A chance encounter with Alfred H Barr Jnr, a founding Director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York led inadvertently to her meeting Robert Goldwater, a young art historian and researcher. Storr comments that Goldwater reversed Bourgeois’ internalised model of the ‘masculine’ based on her father. She married Goldwater in 1938 and followed him almost immediately to New York where she remained for the rest of her life. Alienated, she was unhappy initially but her mood and motherhood did not stifle her creativity and she continued to make work using the roof of the family home both as a plein air studio and as a source of inspiration (He disappeared into complete silence 1947). The Portfolio that follows covers the period 1944- 1955 and includes drawings, paintings and sculpture.
Chapter III describes the years between 1960 and 1970 and is entitled Inside – Outside – here Storr describes Bourgeois increasing exposure to the art scene in New York and the opportunities that were becoming available to her and upon which she was determined to optimize. But he also touches on Bourgeois’ deep psychological distress – difficulties in her marriage and her psychoanalysis. During this time she began a small venture – trading by mail order under the name Erasmus Books and Prints – it was not wholly successful but served as a refuge – a means of ‘disappearing’ during a time of emotional stress and unease when her husband and sons were away from home all day. Bourgeois was deeply troubled by Goldwater’s reserve and this triggered intense confusion about the relationship she had with her father. Her sense of her own sexuality and of womanhood made her feel insecure and aggressive in turn and she worked fitfully. However this period showed Bourgeois emerging to experiment with synthetics, with her attention being redirected from the external to the internal space or from the negative to the positive.
By 1970 Bourgeois was beginning to be recognized as an activist and on the front lines of the feminist cause: her promotion by the prominent feminists Lucy Lippard and Linda Nochlin meant that she was ‘ripe for discovery’. But in 1973 Robert Goldwater died unexpectedly and Storr reports that the impact on Bourgeois was incalculable. To fill the emptiness, she immersed herself in a broad social network. She ‘played mother’ to many but women particularly gravitated to her doorstep. At this point her work became more overtly preoccupied with the body; since the 1940s her sculpture had been ‘incised’ or ‘indented’ – suggesting vaginal openings, but the stone pieces of the 1970 -1980s became much more gender explicit and often ‘bisexual’ incorporating both vagina and phallus. Storr considers that Goldwater was Bourgeois’ shield and that his death left her exposed to her demons. She projected her ‘survivors guilt’ into her nemesis – ‘the father’ resulting in a body of work where her father was represented symbolically. Chapter IV, Janus, describing this period: 1970 – 1989 which represented the most significant and prolific creative period in her career to date and yet one when Bourgeois’ obsessive calculations were employed by her as a method against madness.
In 1982 MOMA held a retrospective of Bourgeois’ work. She was seventy- one, and previously relatively unknown. However this public exposure revealed her as a ‘force to be reckoned with’. A supporter who emerged at this time was Jerry Gorovoy who became her assistant and later also her constant companion and adviser. Despite public acclaim, Bourgeois’ insecurities never abated and in fact increased to the extent that she became reclusive, leaving home only to go to her studio and later, in her eighties, virtually ceasing to go there at all. Storr explains that the world (people) she had retreated from came, instead, to see her but ‘on her own terms’. However, the work she made between 1989–1999 – illustrated in the Portfolio which follows.
Chapter V, Rooms of her Own, is some of the most powerful of her oeuvre. Ferried between her home and her studio by Gorovy in an ancient Chrysler, later in his Ford Bronco and with the help of numerous assistants, Bourgeois made a series of Installations (rooms), which she called Cells. They comprised many materials of symbolic relevance to Bourgeois and included some of her own clothes. During this time she began to make her Spiders (the prototype being a charcoal drawing dating from 1947): this monumental series served as an homage to her mother. Storr quotes Bourgeois:
The theme of spiders is a double theme. First of all, the spider is a guardian, a guardian against mosquitoes… it is a defense against evil…the other metaphor is the spider represents the mother.
(Bourgeois’ parents had run a tapestry restoration atelier in Paris where undoing and reweaving threads – just as the spider makes and repairs her web – was her mother’s quotidian task). Another theme from this time are the fabric sculptures (Personages)- human figures, often dismembered or stunted, inspired by the amputees she saw as a child in the aftermath of the Great War.
The concluding chapter of this remarkable book, entitled Coda describes Bourgeois’ final years and records her frailty and continuing psychological vulnerability. In reviewing her output Storr writes that Bourgeois’ life and work weave in and out of the narratives of art history – embracing Cubism, Surrealism, the Schools of Paris and New York, Modernism and Postmodernism but that of greater significance is the breadth and depth of her visual culture: combining both intelligence and imagination and including her use of material, iconography and psychoanalytic concepts.
Bourgeois was an exceptional artist and this is an exceptional book.
A word of warning: this book is substantial: it measures 29.5 x 34.5x 5.5cms and weighs 5.4 kgs!
(This was written by my sister, whose dissertation for her Textiles & Mixed Media degree was: Does an artist’s childhood influence the art she makes? A comparative study of the work of Louise Bourgeois and Tracy Emin.)
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