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.
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).
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.
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) top, Pont 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.”