Photo Essays

The Print Legacy of Louise Bourgeois Unfolds at MoMA

A new exhibition gathers some 300 works, including 265 prints, to show the increasingly central role printmaking played in Bourgeois’s practice through the decades.

Installation view of <em>Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait</em> at the Museum of Modern Art
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
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, 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
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
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, “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, “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, “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
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
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, 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, “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, “Cell VI” (1991), painted wood and metal
Louise Bourgeois, "House" (1994), marble
Louise Bourgeois, “House” (1994), marble
Louise Bourgeois, "Lullaby" (2006), series of 25 prints on fabric
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, “the puritan” (1990–97, with text from 1947), engravings with selective wiping, gouache, and watercolor additions
Louise Bourgeois, "Untitled (The Wedges)"(1950), painted wood
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
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, “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
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
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
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, “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 “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, “Triptych of the Red Room” (1994), aquatint, drypoint, and engraving
Louise Bourgeois, "Untitled" (1940), oil and pencil on board
Louise Bourgeois, “Untitled” (1940), oil and pencil on board
Louise Bourgeois, "Self Portrait" (1990), four versions
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 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
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
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
Installation view of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait at the Museum of Modern Art
Louise Bourgeois, "Spider II" (1995), bronze
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.

comments (0)