In 1982, as a young curator at the Museum of Modern Art, Deborah Wye organized a retrospective exhibition devoted to Louise Bourgeois, who was then 70 years old. It was the museum’s first one-person survey of a woman artist in well over 30 years. Later, Bourgeois donated an archive of her printed work to MoMA and, in 1994, Wye organized an exhibition of Bourgeois’s prints to accompany the publication of a catalogue raisonné. Over the next 17 years, the artist, who died in May 2010, produced a vastly expanded body of prints, for which Wye has now edited a comprehensive online catalogue. The exhibition Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, on view at MoMA until January 28, 2018, celebrates that publication.
Wye, now Chief Curator Emerita of Prints and Illustrated Books at the Museum, and I are standing in the museum’s yawning Marron Atrium, where an immense spider sculpture in the center (with a smaller one high up on the wall), and a panorama of large-scale prints, offer a somewhat intimidating introduction to the exhibition, the balance of which is installed in the third-floor Edward Steichen Galleries. Wye organized the show and wrote the accompanying catalogue, which provides an expert overview not only of Bourgeois’s prints and artist’s books but her work as a whole.
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Christopher Lyon: We’re standing beside “Spider” (1997), which seemed like a good item for orienting ourselves biographically. It is a steel sculpture of a spider, almost fifteen feet tall, whose eight legs surround a circular cage-like structure. Hung on its walls, attached to several frames propped up inside the structure, and draped on a chair at the center of it, are fragments of faded and tattered tapestry. This work is one of the series of Cells that Bourgeois created over the last two decades of her career.
Deborah Wye: This is the only one of Bourgeois’s sixty-two Cells that brings together the spider and cell structure. The symbolism of the spider as Bourgeois’s mother is especially vivid here, since she was a tapestry restorer by trade. Louise saw the Cells as refuges — she has a chair here for herself. We have another Cell in the show that also includes a chair. But I think the spider in this work also conveys an element of entrapment. It shows a kind of ambivalence on Louise’s part to the role of motherhood.
CL: Wasn’t one of Louise’s earliest jobs as a child filling in drawings on tapestries being repaired?
DW: It was. Louise’s mother’s tapestry restoration workshop employed about twenty women. As a child, Louise was asked to draw in missing imagery from the torn and damaged tapestries. Workers in the atelier would then re-weave those sections.
CL: An interesting aspect of this piece is that the abdomen of the spider hovering above the enclosure is a kind of basket containing three glass globes, like giant eggs.
DW: Those are the babies. They can be seen as symbolizing both the family that Bourgeois grew up in, with a sister and brother, and also her own family, since she had three sons.
CL: One could pull at the threads of this show at multiple places. One that occurred to me was a connection to a work in the show titled “Bosom Lady” (1948), in which the birdlike figure with Louise’s head and exposed breasts is gazing at a bowl that contains three eggs. So this motif spans a half century of work.
DW: In the same alcove where “Bosom Lady” is shown, there are the Sainte Sébastienne prints, which are all self-portraits of Bourgeois. The final versions show a female figure with an exotic, up-swung hairdo, and in the hairdo are hidden three eggs. Her sons would have been in their fifties when these prints were made, yet the subject still preoccupied Bourgeois.
CL: One of your goals in the show, I think, is to show this continuity across Louise’s work.
DW: I’m very interested in the way the past and present merge. It is evident throughout the show. Bourgeois will turn to a theme from an early painting to create a print fifty years later. Or she includes a text she wrote in 1947 in a book from 1990 — the puritan. She once said that her memories were her treasures, but also that she was a prisoner of her memories.
CL: That’s a big issue with Louise.
DW: Yes, her memories and feelings from the past remained very powerful. She said that when she looked at a work made a long time ago, all the emotions she felt at that time came rushing back to her.
But if I could say I had an organizing principle for the exhibition, it would be to explore Bourgeois’s creative process, demonstrating how prints played an integral role in her practice overall. As a print curator, I’ve always been fascinated with evolving states that show a composition developing. That evolution disappears under layers of a painting or drawing. In this exhibition I wanted to show her creative process beyond printmaking — that a print could derive from a painting or a drawing or a sculpture, or might inspire a work by her in another medium.
CL: In your book and on the exhibition labels you emphasize the printmakers Bourgeois worked with. It seems that she was energized by collaboration.
DW: I think she was. In printmaking, the collaboration of artist, printer, and publisher has always been an essential factor. There is a lot of personal chemistry involved in these relationships. For example, the printer Felix Harlan, of the Harlan & Weaver print workshop, not only had expertise but also a personality that melded well with Bourgeois’s. They worked together for some twenty years at her brownstone in Chelsea, where she had two small printing presses on the lower level. He said he’d often prepare a blotter with proofs pulled during the day and leave it on her table so when she woke up early, she could start working on them. She always wanted to revise, revise, revise. That process went on and on. She could make twenty or thirty evolving states and variants for a single composition.
[As we enter the third-floor exhibition galleries, Deborah stops to listen to a recording of Louise’s voice, heard from a speaker in the ceiling]
DW: You hear her singing here in a kind of rap song she wrote, called “Otte.” I wanted her to be present in the show. Her voice gives me that.
CL: I was so interested that you started the show with works that are architectural but also merging the body and constructed forms. You see it over and over again: this attempt to reconcile geometry with organic forms, the intellect with the emotions. We’re looking now at one of her most famous images, the “Femme Maison” — a female nude whose head and torso are enveloped by a house.
DW: Again, this is the past and present coming together: she made the print in the ’80s, but from imagery of the 1940s. Another compelling example of the embodiment of architecture is seen in the skyscrapers illustrating the small book He Disappeared into Complete Silence, made in 1947. She envisioned the buildings as people. If one is standing alone, it’s lonely; if there are two, they form a couple; if there are three, it means jealousy. She fully personalized these architectural structures.
CL: Now we are in the alcove devoted to selections from the versions of Sainte Sébastienne, which we mentioned earlier —
DW: This is just a fraction of the states and variants for Sainte Sebastienne, which she made in the 1990s. The subject derives from a watercolor of 1947 where she feminizes the Christian Saint Sebastian for the first time.
CL: And in the early piece, we have a sort of organic figure being attacked by abstract, pin-like forms. These become arrows in the 1990s versions.
DW: She felt attacked by inner feelings — depression, anxiety, anger, and the like, but also from outside antagonisms. Here the changes in the individual proofs reflect how she felt on any given day. She wasn’t simply developing formal elements, although there is always some of that. You’ll notice that hair is a very important element. In one proof it is completely cut off, which certainly represents an act of violence against herself.
CL: Actually the head also appears to be severed at the neck in this print. And in the very large version of Sainte Sébastienne the head is missing entirely. What’s with cutting the head off?
DW: Anger, I’m sure. I was surprised when I learned that MoMA’s bookshop planned a poster of that work. I think it’s kind of scary. But then some younger women staff members told me they really like it and that to them it represented resistance. So even if a woman’s head is cut off and she is attacked with arrows, she keeps striding forward!
CL: Unstoppable. Now we’re in the section titled “Forces of Nature.”
DW: Not many people have talked about Bourgeois’s relationship to nature, but it was very strong and is reflected often in her work. Growing up, she and her siblings each had garden plots to tend, and she became very familiar with the workings of nature.
CL: Her father had an elaborate garden, right? And animals too? He had like a little zoo there.
DW: Yes, he did. Also, as an adult, when she and her family had a country house in Easton, Connecticut, she spent time with her children outside, studying nature.
[In the center of the gallery where the final section of the exhibition, “Lasting Impressions,” is presented, there is a suspended sculpture with a glittering bronze patina, “Arch of Hysteria” (1993), surrounded by visitors taking selfies. It is a headless, life-size nude male figure bent over backwards so extremely that its extended hands almost touch its heels, making a golden circle in the air.]
CL: This sculpture brings to mind nineteenth-century psychological theories of female hysteria and almost seems like a thumbing of the nose to [neurologist Jean-Martin]
Charcot and [Sigmund] Freud.
DW: It’s definitely a reaction against the idea that hysteria is exclusively a women’s problem. In the nineteenth century, most of the photographs of hysterics in this arched position were of women. But, now I’m reading that Charcot actually did acknowledge male hysteria, too.
[Also in this final gallery is a series of very large (40 x 60 inches) soft-ground etchings, from the installation set “À l’infini” (2008), all with extensive additions in mediums including gouache, colored pencil, and watercolor wash. Wye points out that they all are based on the same underlying print]
DW: I think this is a spectacular late work. And I also believe that the printed fragments on each sheet — the twisting, vine-like elements — give the cycle its unity. Those elements create an almost musical rhythm — a beat that reverberates from sheet to sheet.
Studying Bourgeois’s prints, most of which were made when she was in her eighties and nineties, got me interested in late artistic styles generally — the styles of artists like Titian, Rembrandt, Monet, de Kooning. But all of these artists died at different ages, and Bourgeois lived the longest — until 98. A lot of the art-historical literature about late styles talks about similarities found among different artists — characteristics like loose brushwork, a sense of spontaneity, and a tendency toward abstraction. These have been interpreted as evoking spirituality and transcendence. Bourgeois created this particular project when she was 96 and it felt to me like it fit into this general discussion of late artistic styles. Here, she seems to be going back to a primordial state; some see the series as representing the life cycle, from birth to death.
Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 28, 2018.