Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait (MOMA)

If MOMA realized that its latest exhibition on Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) would be running through Halloween, it certainly selected an appropriate artist. Her towering bronze spiders with their spindly legs and incarcerating abilities, continue to evoke fear and dread in even the most seasoned MOMA visitor.

IMG_8201Spider (1997)

Yet it was these arachnids that helped to turn Bourgeois into a legendary phenomenon. That the price of her work has more than quadrupled since 2000, when I first saw her 30ft Spider, at the Tate Modern in London and that Bourgeois’ work currently commands the second highest price achieved by a female artist, is not insignificant. Her work remains compelling and intriguing, especially upon closer inspection. With the fragments of her memories on display, depicting themes of feminism, entrapment, and abandonment,  a past is explored through composition, medium and material.

In Spider (1997), part of her Cells series (1991-2000), and the initial piece in MOMA’s second floor gallery, the visitor is introduced to a scene of disturbing domesticity, masquerading as an internal labyrinth of the mind. Here a vertical tapestry, hung like a bell-pull on the cage-like enclosure, references Bourgeois’ childhood spent assisting her family’s business in the tapestry restoration trade. An old covered chair and anthropomorphic draped fragments, fabricated from steel, tapestry, wood, glass, fabric, rubber, silver, gold and bone, suggest a confidence in her use of a wide range of material.

Nevertheless it is the 15ft spider itself, that steals the show. MOMA knows that it cannot compete in terms of setting, scale and impact with the Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall in London. Yet by situating Spider (1997) above the entrance, it tries. Uncomfortable in the gallery’s mezzanine, yet visible from the entrance, a sense of unease and claustrophobia is established.  Faced with apparently the rawest of constructions,  Bourgeois’ work deceives, in that it is fabricated, choreographed and very well considered, leaving nothing to chance. Yet the caged, domestic, territorial scenes depicted in her Cells series, remain current and topical, with feminist issues of neglect and abuse, prevalent.


The Smell of Eucalyptus (# 2) (2006) Soft-ground etching  (above)                                                Turning Inwards (2008) Soft-ground etching, with selective wiping (below)


The exploration of these introspective themes are displayed on the surrounding walls, where images of tangled forms are shown (above). Alluding to abstracted female parts, Bourgeois’ technique of soft-ground etchings, often with selective wiping, adds a certain vulnerability. It also appears to reference the fine pencil work of botanical drawings, providing an almost academic geometry, rigor and validation.

Organised by theme, rather than chronologically, what follows on MOMA’s third floor is unexpected. It also presents another side to Bourgeois, to those who know her only for her large-scale spiders and elaborate scenes.


Living in Paris, Bourgeois had met and married her American husband, Robert Goldwater, in 1938 and then moved to New York with him.  Goldwater was an art historian specializing in what was known then as primitive art, and Bourgeois’ sculptures of the late 1940s, shown here, reflect this discipline. With a verticality emerging in the forms of totem poles, and  towers, these works predate her Cells series (1991-2010) by approximately half-a-century.

Untitled (The Wedges) (1950) Painted wood (above)                                                              Pillar (1949-50) Painted wood (below)


Aesthetically they are more in keeping with her geometrical prints and fabric books, to which she returned towards the end of her life (below).IMG_8246IMG_8245

MOMA has juxtaposed the simpler Cell VI (1991 ) below to demonstrate that the Cells themselves varied. Whilst mostly complex and theatrical, dark and psychological, this atypical one also references primitive art and is more architectural. It presents a calm almost monastic sheltering quality, enhanced  by the dominant turquoise color.


Displayed alongside gentle watercolors on more formal engravings, the gender balance, and initial social and professional isolation, are all expressed in a more tentative manner.

The influence of her Surrealist peers is seen in Portrait of Jean-Louis (1947-49) below. IMG_8219

Famille  (1947-9)  draws strongly from the visual imagery of Georgio de Chirico’s work, particularly his The Painter’s Family (1926). The influence of Fernand Léger, another well-known Surrealist and Bourgeois’ teacher, during the mid 1930s in Paris, can also be seen in these early engravings, particularly in the industrial isolation of Pont Transbordeur (1946-7).



Famille (1947-9) topPont Transbordeur  (1946-7) above.  © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA. From MOMA collection.

Yet the impact of the Surrealist movement on Bourgeois is incidental. A self-proclaimed Existentialist, familiar with the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, it is likely that Gaston Bachelard’s the Poetics of Space, had a more profound effect on her work. Bachelard stated, “To inhabit oneirically the house we were born in means, more than to inhabit it in memory; it means living in this house that is gone, the way we used to dream in it.”

With Bourgeois’ art addressing this notion of memory and childhood, her structures suggesting both security and entrapment, and her family members abstracted within  her art, she repeatedly addressed her sense of abandonment over her father’s infidelity and her mother’s illness. Bourgeois suffered severe depression following the death of each parent and undertook extensive psychoanalysis.

As she plundered her memories and emotions for her art, so Bourgeois utilized her stored fabrics and remnants that she had accumulated for decades. Employing a seamstress, she formed geometries, repetitive patterns and architectural hierarchies, seeking order amidst the chaos of her formative years, and seeking solace in the memory of her early studies of mathematics at the Sorbonne, Paris.

With over 300 pieces of her work, this exhibition is successful in conveying the magnitude and variety of Bourgeois’ artwork, which displays an astounding variety of techniques explored during her lengthy career. Her collaborations with much younger artists in her later years, led to the development of new printing techniques. These allowed for the adding of handwork. Technically complex, they hint at a certain sense of respite in the craft itself. These prints displayed a remarkable mind, capable of innovation, even during the final four years of her life until her death, age 98, in 2010.


The exhibition’s grand finale, the polished bronze flaying Arch of Hysteria, 1993, above, suspended dramatically, is a reminder of her core unresolved issues and regrets. A female Pietà, hovering precariously, simultaneously victim and victor, cared for and abandoned, corpse and free spirit, it commands the attention of the room.

A seductive exhibition, one leaves spellbound in Bourgeois’ web of artistry, her memories become ours, her narrative intertwines with our own. MOMA’s choice to use Bourgeois’ work to launch their new interior project is unsurprising, as she was also the first artist used by the new Tate Modern, London to launch their original building in 2000 and their new ARTIST ROOMS gallery last year. In a recent article, Frances Morris, curator of the vastly expanded Tate Modern explains why, “Her art remains relevant, her themes intoxicatingly interchangeable with our own and the execution of her work , a delight to behold.”



The Ten Dia Commandments

By Sarah Balcombe                                                                                                                         

In homage to Ten Dual Commandments (Hamilton) by Anthony Ramos, with lyrics by Lin Manuel.

One, two, three, four
Five, six, seven, eight, nine…

It’s the Ten Dia Commandments

Number one!

The challenge: leave the city for satisfaction

When completed, return to Manhattan

Number two!

If inclined, grab a friend, head north to Dia:Beacon

Via Tappan Zee  Bridge, it’s a sight albeit fleetin’

Number three!

Approach the parking and  meet face-to-face

With landscape and reception to negotiate

This is commonplace, a stunning masterpiece

Arrive the quickest or on Metro-North at least


Number four!

If you don’t reach all galleries, that’s alright

Chill and relax, there’s a cafe on site


You walk around the gallery, you treat it with civility

You have a vast space, with great accessibility

John Chamberlain, Coup d’Soup, 1980
John Chamberlain, Three-Cornered Desire, 1979
John Chamberlain, Daddy in the Dark, 1988

Chamberlain! Five!

Dia til the sun is leavin’ the sky

Lay out your rods on the red, military style

Walter De Maria, 360˚ I Ching/64 Sculptures,                                                                                    1981, Copyright, The Estate of Walter de Maria.                                                                            Photo@ Bill Jacobson Studio, New York

Number six!

Leave a note for your next of kin

Then enter eerie basement of Dan Flavin


Dan Flavin,                                                                                                                                            Untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection)1973 


Confess your phobias. Ready for the moment

Of daylight, when you resurface for the home-run

Number eight!

Richard Serra’s, vast ellipses to negotiate

Send in your seconds, see if they can enter straight…

Richard Serra, 2000, 2000
Richard Serra, Double Torqued Ellipse, 1997
Richard Serra, Union of the Torus and the Sphere, 2001

Can we agree that the city is intense? Sure

But it has Dia:Chelsea, the essential cure

Yet Dia:Beacon has Michael Heizer’s voids

Now that’s a lure.


Michael Heizer, North, East, South, West, 1967/2002

Hang on, is leavin’ the city fortuitous?

Okay, so we’re doin’ this

Number nine!

And then there’s Bruce Nauman, aim no higher

With his neon and solitary chair ’tis all you require


Bruce Nauman, South America Circle, 1981 (above)


Bruce Nauman, Hanged Man, 1985 

Then count

One two three four

Five six seven eight nine

Number ten!

10 Dia Commandments!

So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright at MOMA…

….But you can still catch him in Harlem.

By Sarah Balcombe

Despite the epic Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive exhibition closing, last weekend, at MOMA, a glimpse of his social housing plans is still available at the Miriam and Ira D Wallach Gallery at the Lenfest Center for the Arts, 615 West 129th St until December 17th.full_front_Lenfest_building_800px

Not only is this is a chance to glimpse Renzo Piano’s latest landmark addition to Harlem (above), but it is also a chance to explore what could be considered the most interesting aspect of Wright’s career. Less familiar than the already well-documented private homes of Illinois and Pennsylvania, where Kauffman’s “Falling Water” (1937) embraced nature with aplomb, this “Living in America” exhibition focuses on Wright’s lesser known models for a new kind of living, applying a similar formula to rural, suburban and urban areas. It compares and contrasts Wright’s proposals with the Harlem River Houses, the first social housing built in Manhattan, as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Wright would have been aware of Le Corbusier’s radical 1925 Plan Voisin, which projected a block pattern of living, with a central park and dominated by the motor car. At a time when Europe was clambering out of World War I and infatuation with the car was seen as a positive factor of change, Wright developed his American response. His preliminary work, The Disappearing City, first published in 1932, introduced the concept of “organic spirituality”. This manifested itself into his theoretical Broadacre City where he envisioned every citizen owning one acre of land in a path towards “self-improvement”.Image result for broadacre city

Wright’s Broadacre City 12ft x 12ft model of 1935, developed with his fellowship students at Taliesen West, in Arizona, (above) was shown in Rockefeller Center, Manhattan, ironically a bastion of capitalism. A timely scheme, the model proposed a decentralization of the city, with a pattern that Wright sought to replicate across US cities, including industry, farming, six lane highways, school and housing. Radical in scale and ferocity, some of the Utopian aspects of these projects, with areas designated to growing food gardens are still implemented today.

In his biography “Many Masks: A life of Frank Lloyd Wright” Broadacre City, Brendan Gill describes Wright’s vision of “spacious landscaped highways, safe in width and grade. ..Giant roads, themselves great architecture….each citizen of the future will have all forms of production, distribution, self-improvement, enjoyment, within a radius of one hundred and fifty miles of his home now easily and speedily available by means of his car or his plane.”

An important part of the American dream, this was a concept that had begun to resonate and which would increase in momentum in the 1950s. And yet the fervour with which this was proclaimed and the rather shocking scale of the model, led Gill to comment  ” As is the case with most utopians, Wright preached a freedom for the individual that could be achieved only by mass regimentation.”

He continues “At first glance, Broadacre City seems to offer its inhabitants the best of several worlds: the fresh air and sunlight” were seductive images. Ideal proximities to retail and entertainment in a pre-internet and streaming world were also applauded. Yet “At second glance, one perceives that.. Broadacre City threatens to turn the entire country, from coast to coast …..into a single immaculate and homogenous non-city: an incarnation on a monstrous scale of the…suburb..”

east harlem

Courtesy Horace Ginsbern Papers, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York   Perspective drawing of the Harlem River Houses, 1935

The  manifestation of these ideals and the scale, is similarly controversial.The Harlem River Houses, built in 1936 for working class African Americans was designed by a consortium of Archibald Manning Brown as chief architect for the project with architects Will Rice Amon, Richard W. Buckley, Frank J. Forster, Charles F. Fuller, Horace Ginsbern, and John Louis Wilson, Jr. one of the first African American architects to be registered in New York State.

Complete with playgrounds, electricity, light, hot water and heating, “the complex stood out as one of the best constructed examples of public housing” and considering that this was in an era of significant racial inequality, the River Houses stood out as “a highly desirable place to live for the African-American community,”  writes Meghan White for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The 9-acre Harlem River Housing (below) was deemed to be the most successful public housing in New York City.


Wikimedia Commons/Beyond My Ken (Megan White)

Lewis Mumford, architectural critic  who is best known for his opposing views on urban planning with Jane Jacobs, praised the Harlem River Houses. He admired, “the equipment for decent living that every modern neighborhood needs: sunlight, air, safety, play space, meeting space, and living space. The families in the Harlem Houses have higher standards of housing, measured in tangible benefits, than most of those on Park Avenue.”

However,  plagued more recently by surrounding high-rise tower blocks, unemployment, lower income residents and maintenance issues, one is reminded of Jane Jacobs’ lament, documented in, Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, Robert Kanigel‘s 2016 biography. With the destruction of a vast number of businesses and smaller homes, albeit mostly slums, Jacobs claimed that the essence of communities were destroyed, rendering them barren problematic zones. Kanigel writes (p.143), “All told, across East Harlem, the projects had eliminated more than fifteen hundred retail stores, with virtually none built in their place. Pity the poor capitalists? Maybe. But if you took your eyes off their troubles and looked instead at the neighbourhood they served, you’d see not only entrepreneurial livelihoods lost, but social glue weakened- a community, as Jane would put it, replaced by a dormitory.”

Interestingly, Mumford had initially encouraged Jane Jacobs, early in her career, to keep writing about urban issues that were of importance to her. “Keep hammering,” he told her. “Your worst opponents are the old fogies who imagine that Le Corbusier is the last word in urbanism.” Whether Mumford was, in fact, referring to Wright, and his followers, Wright’s essential question remains,  how can utopian ideals be applied successfully to housing?

A trip to the Lenfest exhibition, or to the Harlem River Houses, may well provide the answer and if that triggers an interest in this subject, be sure to check out The Citizen Jane Film Festival next weekend in Bridgeport, CT.

Is Manhattan’s art epicenter shifting?

Despite the Whitney Museum doubling its attendance with its new building and the High Line attracting over four million visitors a year, gentrification in that Meatpacking district has forced many artists and art lovers to look elsewhere. The Met Breuer on the upper seat side in the iconic brutalist Breuer-designed old Whitney building is attempting to shake things up in the age-old Upper East. MOMA is building a stunning new extension with Jean Nouvel‘s skyscraper above, but with prices starting at $3m per apartment (and increasing to $70 million) it is not a real contender for changing the face of the neighborhood.

Midtown was known in the 1950s as the center of Abstract Expressionism, followed by Soho a decade later, then Chelsea with some current re-emergence in the Upper East Side. However none of this is static. According to David Halle and Elisabeth Tiso in their 2014 book New York’s New Edge “When one site loses dominance, galleries do not disperse, but a new dominant center emerges, at least so far.”

What is happening in Harlem is a result of this movement. With Columbia University adding its new 60,000 sq ft Lenfest Center for the Arts building to their Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, and with the Studio Museum, at 144 W125th St, led by Thelma Golden, planning a 82,000 sq ft building project of  $175m at their existing location, it will be interesting to see whether this seismic shift is possible.

Both new institutions promise collaboration and integration with their surrounding communities. Carol Becker, Dean of the School of the Arts describes their goal to create a “welcoming venue” which encourages collaboration between “students, faculty and guest artists”, as well as “fostering connections to the always vibrant art scene in Harlem and beyond.”

Image result for thelma golden  

Photo: Thelma Golden (WSJ) Photo: David Adjaye (Alamy in Architectural Digest)

Adjaye Asociates, led by the British Sir David Adjaye OBE, of Ghanaian descent, architect of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C.  is planning to display art in the surrounding environment, on the street and terraces, in an attempt to embrace surrounding areas, blurring inside and outside boundaries and encouraging the participation of the public.

Photo: The museum’s rear façade. (Courtesy of the Studio Museum)

Whilst Adjaye, has been a consistent and somewhat familiar figure, coming-of-age as I did, in the 1990s London architecture scene,  I  “discovered” Ms Golden much more recently when browsing through the colorful pages of  “In The Company Of Women” following which I saw her featured in Vogue,  and established her synonymous relationship with the local Harlem and broader international art scene.

With her cosmopolitan dynamism and dress sense (with clothes designed by her fashion designer husband Duru Olowu) , I believe that she has single-handedly assisted with removing the stuffiness from art and reinvigorating it with some much needed visionary aplomb and direction, akin to a revolution-of-sorts. Harlem has gained not only a formidable art force, but “a new cultural leader to the neighborhood”.

The “Harlem-need” factor, described by Glenn D Lowry (director of MOMA) embraces community and diversity and is a welcome antidote to these troubled political times. With the 2021 anticipated launch I predict that a very different Harlem will embrace its opening. West Harlem is ready. Whether this project will have a knock-on effect on East Harlem, where the essence of community was replaced, decades earlier, by looming tower blocks, as recorded in Robert Kangel’s Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, remains to be seen. I hope that the more western Studio Museum,  can welcome a new era of integration between East and West Harlem,  emphasizing continual progress and creating an exciting future.

“Here comes the new. Look out. There goes the sad stuff. The things-nobody-could-help stuff. The way everybody was then and there. Forget that. History is over, you all, and everything’s ahead at last.” (Toni Morrison: Jazz)

Whether Harlem will once again sing like Toni Morrison’s Jazz novel, providing the pulse to the art world, is not even questionable. It already is.