When French photographer Jean-François Jaussaud asked an 84-year-old Louise Bourgeois for permission to photograph her at her New York home and studio, she gave him an intimidating stipulation: He would have to show her every single image he took, and if she didn’t like them, he would have to destroy them. The fierce French-American sculptor, painter, and printmaker wouldn’t have it any other way.
Luckily, Jaussaud’s prints met the approval of Bourgeois’ critical eye. Jaussaud, an engineering school dropout who first met Bourgeois in 1994 in her Brooklyn studio, was invited to come back whenever he liked. He spent the next 11 years photographing the artist at work and at home, creating the most intimate visual record we have of Bourgeois in the twilight of her life.
“Louise was extremely sensitive,” Jaussaud told Hyperallergic. Despite the wry, crinkly-eyed smile she flashes the camera, Bourgeois was known for volatility. “She could be very rough, then five minutes later, charming. It was like all her sensation [went] though her skin and had to [be] expressed immediately. But most of the time she was benevolent with me, so I had just to focus on my pictures.”
These pictures show the artist lounging in her no-frills Chelsea home, in her Brooklyn studio under the legs ofher giant spider sculpture “Maman,” wryly smiling in a white Peter Pan collar and billed hat, and with her head in her hands, frazzled before a critique of her work at one of her Sunday salons.
Recently shown at Galerie Elizabeth Royer in Paris, the photos reveal Bourgeois’ devotion to and immersion in her working process. Unlike, say, Andy Warhol, Bourgeois wasn’t excessively photographed, and so it’s only posthumously that such images of her will begin to inform the public’s perception of her art.
Though she was famous by the time Jaussaud photographed her, and had a team of employees whom Jaussaud would have to call before 9am in order to secure access to the studio for a given day, Bourgeois wasn’t an artist who had assistants do all the hands-on work (looking at you, Jeff Koons). In one photograph, she sits at a desk in a dirty smock, with wet plaster-covered hands; in another, she sits at a table at home under a massive corkboard covered in photographs, clippings, sketches — a visualization of her relentlessly active mind. Still, Jaussaud said, “the force of her personality is seen more readily in her artwork itself than in these photographs, especially through the materials she used: iron, plaster, rubber, fabrics.”
She didn’t revel in the material perks of art world fame. “You can see that Louise was not interested in comfort or decoration,” Jaussaud said. “Things were in her home only for the purpose of her work, I can say that there was no difference between her life and work.” At her home in Chelsea, she slept on a small cot surrounded by a mess of books and a boombox, and buckets of plaster of Paris piled up in her bathroom. Now known as the Easton Foundation, the apartment is available to visit by appointment, having been preserved as it was found after Bourgeois’ death in 2010 at the age of 98.