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Installation view of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait at the Museum of Modern Art

Louise Bourgeois remains best known for her spider sculptures, cell installations, and uncanny sewn figures, but print- and book-making sustained her practice for decades. Beginning with tightly composed, precise, and Surrealist-inspired etchings and engravings in the 1940s, through the illustrated books and fabric prints she created in the ensuing decades, to the airy and virtually abstract drypoint prints and etchings she created in the last decade of her life, the printing process enabled her to work through and develop some of the core themes and symbols of her career.

The Museum of Modern Art owns about 3,000 printed works by Bourgeois, and a selection of 265 of them are on view in the new exhibition Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, alongside contextualizing drawings, paintings, sculptures, and, naturally, a couple of bronze spiders.

The entrance to Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait at the Museum of Modern Art with “Femme Maison” (“Woman House,” 1984), photogravure at right

Curated by longtime Bourgeois scholar and former Chief Curator of MoMA’s Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, Deborah Wye, the exhibition is organized thematically and chronologically. Early rooms focus on architecture and abstraction, leading into sections on the body, the motif of the spiral, works on fabric, imagery inspired by nature, and other subjects that span different decades and groups of work. The bulk of the show is concentrated on the museum’s third floor, though its loose chronological sequencing culminates with the series of large-scale prints from 2006 to 2009 and two spider sculptures installed dramatically in the second floor atrium. Moving through the rooms, one gets a sense of Bourgeois’s growing comfort with printmaking, her increasingly daring experimentation, and the central place prints eventually took in her work from 1990 onward.

Louise Bourgeois, four different prints titled “Pivotage Difficile” (“Difficult Steering,” 1947); three are engravings and the one at far right is an engraving with scorper

Louise Bourgeois, “Stamp of Memories II” (1994), drypoint with metal stamp additions

Wye’s groupings emphasize not only how Bourgeois would continually revisit decades-old ideas and images, but also how printmaking allowed her to use a single plate to experiment with different inks, colors, and embellishments. In the first room of the show, which showcases images of playful and personified skyscrapers, four versions of the print “Pivotage Difficile” (“Difficult Steering,” 1947) installed side-by-side show dramatic differences from one version to the next, with a fuzzy pillar gradually sprouting alongside the crystalline tower on the image’s right side. Later, an alcove is devoted to her prints from the ’90s reclaiming the figure of Saint Sebastian as the feminist martyr “Sainte Sébastienne,” all extrapolated from a watercolor she painted in 1947 — this is also on view. Here, we see a pair of drypoint prints from 1994 in which the saint’s figure is filled with hand-stamped monograms: in one version, an elaborate “LB” for the artist’s father, Louis Bourgeois; in the other, a starkly modernist, sans serif “LB” for the artist herself. As in all her work, family trauma — like, in this instance, her father leaving to fight in World War I when Bourgeois was just three years old — and psychological hardships are ever-present in her prints.

“Her motivation was really her emotional struggles,” Wye said during a press preview at MoMA on Tuesday. “She called her art her ‘guarantee of sanity.’”

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait at the Museum of Modern Art with “Arch of Hysteria” (1993), bronze, polished patina at center and works from the installation set À l’Infini (“To Infinity,” 2008) in the background

The notion that Bourgeois found balance and clarity through her practice comes across most clearly in the exhibition’s final room on MoMA’s third floor, which pairs her large-scale installation of 14 prints “À l’Infini” (“To Infinity,” 2008) with the suspended, shining bronze sculpture “Arch of Hysteria” (1993). The sculpture, elegant and photogenic though it is, articulates a state of paralyzing and torturous tension, while the prints — made just two years before Bourgeois died at age 98 — have a looseness and fluidity that evokes comfort, openness, and resolution. As its title suggests, this exhibition adds more depth to many of the themes and struggles that shaped Bourgeois’s decades-long career, like the tension between the physical and the psychological or conflicting desires for security and danger. And though her prints don’t pack quite the same blockbuster power as her sculptures, anyone who’s been captivated by Bourgeois’s work will find great value in leafing through the many layers of her printed works.

Louise Bourgeois, “Femme Maison” (1947), ink, gouache, and pencil on paper

Louise Bourgeois, “Figure” (1954), painted wood, at right; and “Pillar” (1949–50), painted wood, at left

Louise Bourgeois, “Portrait of Jean-Louis” (1947–49), painted bronze

Louise Bourgeois, three prints called “Thompson Street” (ca 1946–48), with at left a soft ground etching, at center a soft ground etching and monotype with selective wiping, and at right a soft ground etching, engraving, and monotype, with selective wiping

Plate 7 from Louise Bourgeois, He Disappeared into Complete Silence (1947), illustrated book engraving with drypoint and scorper

Louise Bourgeois, plates from the second edition of He Disappeared into Complete Silence (2005)

Louise Bourgeois, “The Sky’s the Limit” (1989–2003), both etchings with watercolor and gouache additions

Louise Bourgeois, “Cell VI” (1991), painted wood and metal

Louise Bourgeois, “House” (1994), marble

Louise Bourgeois, “Lullaby” (2006), series of 25 prints on fabric

Louise Bourgeois, “the puritan” (1990–97, with text from 1947), engravings with selective wiping, gouache, and watercolor additions

Louise Bourgeois, “Untitled (The Wedges)”(1950), painted wood

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait at the Museum of Modern Art featuring a case of spiral-themed works

Louise Bourgeois, “Spiral Woman” (2002), drypoint and engraving with selective wiping on fabric in the foreground; above, “Spiral Woman” (2001), drypoint with ink, pencil, and gouache at left and center, drypoint, engraving, and aquatint at right

Louise Bourgeois, “Lair” (1962), bronze, painted white

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait at the Museum of Modern Art, with Louise Bourgeois, “Untitled” (1998), fabric and stainless steel at center

Pages from Louise Bourgeois, “Ode à l’Oubli (“Ode to Forgetting,” 2004), fabric illustrated book with thirty fabric collages and four lithographs

Louise Bourgeois, “I Redo” (interior element from the installation “I Do, I Undo, I Redo,” 1999–2000), steel, glass, wood, and tapestry

Louise Bourgeois “Untitled no. 5 of 12” from the portfolio Anatomy (1989–90), drypoint, at left; and “Torso, Self Portrait” (1963–64), plaster at right

Louise Bourgeois, “Triptych of the Red Room” (1994), aquatint, drypoint, and engraving

Louise Bourgeois, “Untitled” (1940), oil and pencil on board

Louise Bourgeois, “Self Portrait” (1990), four versions

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait at the Museum of Modern Art featuring works inspired by nature but verging on abstraction

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait at the Museum of Modern Art with “Arch of Hysteria” (1993), bronze, polished patina at center

Louise Bourgeois, “Spider” (1997), steel, tapestry, wood, glass, fabric, rubber, silver, gold, and bone

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait at the Museum of Modern Art

Louise Bourgeois, “Spider II” (1995), bronze

Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait opens on September 24 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) and continues through January 28, 2018.

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...