Essays

My Unexpected Valentine’s Day with Louise Bourgeois

On my first trip to New York in 1998, I looked up Bourgeois in the phone book and called her. To my surprise, she answered and invited me to her home on Valentine’s Day.

Louise Bourgeois (screenshot via Louise Bourgeois: une vie on YouTube)

Everyone has their own New York anniversary, and mine was the time in 1998 when I met Louise Bourgeois on Valentine’s Day. I was staying with my friend who lived on St. Mark’s Place, and one day, while walking down West 20th street in Chelsea, he pointed to a brownstone and said, with a little tremble in his voice, “That’s where Louise Bourgeois lives!” Apparently, he’d gone there on a class trip from Stony Brook University and they all had to bring their art and she had been really mean to them. I was intrigued. I remembered someone telling me that all the famous people in New York were in the phone book and you could just look them up. So I dragged him into the nearest bar and looked her up. Sure enough, there she was: “Bourgeois, L. 347 West 20th Street.” My heart sped up as I called the number from the bar’s payphone.

To my surprise, her son answered (the one who wrote the book called The Spectacular Vernacular). I asked for “Louise,” and a minute later I was almost speechless when I heard her raspy, ancient-sounding French voice. She was so patient and nice as I muttered about being an artist from San Francisco and I asked if I could come by and meet her some time.

Louise Bourgeois’s building in New York (screenshot via Louise Bourgeois: une vie on YouTube)

She said, “Where? From San Francisco? Well, yes, yes of course!” But I had to bring some of my art, and that I should come by around noon on Sunday — there would be some kind of party going on. I was oblivious to the fact that she had regular Sunday salons at her place, and that she’d been doing it for years and that it was one of those things people did all the time and everyone else seemed to know about. She had created her own little art world inside her house where rich and poor, famous and almost famous, and nobodies and somebodies could all meet and shoot the breeze. Or preen their feathers. Or talk trash. But, being clueless, I naturally felt like I was sneaking in.

I spent the next two days looking at every book I could find on her work. I sat around St. Mark’s Bookshop digging around their art section trying to study up just in case I got put on the spot. I knew enough to know what I didn’t know, and that what I knew wasn’t nearly enough. Sitting in the bookstore I realized just how much she had done and I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.

When Sunday rolled around, I thought I better go a little early. Everyone had told me about how notorious traffic was in the city. Also, because Sunday was Valentine’s Day, I decided to bring her a bouquet of purple irises. I don’t know why those particular flowers, maybe they were in a van Gogh painting? Whatever the reason, I recall standing there at the doorstep thinking how surreal it was that I was even there at all. Some of my friends had urged me to smuggle in a camera or some kind of audio recorder but I didn’t. I wanted to actually enjoy the experience without neurotically documenting it.

So I rang the bell and waited. A minute went by. Nothing. Maybe I pressed it too lightly? I rang it again, more firmly this time. Then, ever so slowly, the door opened. Her son appeared and looked me up and down. I thought he was going to tell me to go away; instead he motioned for me to follow him, and in I went.

He led me into the living room and then slipped off somewhere. I stood alone thinking maybe Bourgeois had thought I was someone else when I had phoned her. I decided I would just play along and see what happened. What’s the harm in that? Right then she started shouting questions at me but I couldn’t see her. What’s my name, where was I from, what kind of art did I make, was I hungry? I followed the voice into her tiny kitchen where she was fussing with something. It was a jar. She asked me if I could open it for her. She was born the same year as my grandmother, 1911, so that made her 87 years old. Of course I could help her open the jar.

Since I was the first person there, Bourgeois had me sit at her creaky, old table while she heated up a kettle for tea. She then pulled out a big plate piled with cookies that were shaped like long, thin red lips. They were sugar cookies and the frosting looked like shiny, red lipstick. She smiled and told me I could have as many as I wanted. We kept chatting as she walked around getting things ready for the guests. She offered some organic bananas with the tea and we sat and talked about New York and her house. She took the flowers matter-of-factly and put them in some water, accepting them less as a gift for her, and more as a gift for the house.

The house had been clearly lived in for quite some time. One wall was completely covered in posters, cards, and flyers — it was like a messy collage of all of her shows. It was an interesting monument and, I guessed, a way to keep track of time. On the other side of the room were lots and lots of books. Bourgeois loved books.

Soon, all kinds of characters started drifting in, all of who seemed to speak more French than I did. I could follow some of the conversation, but people went back and forth between French and English talking about their art, showing it around the table to everyone. At one point, Bourgeois said flat out that she didn’t like one woman’s art — because it was boring. Even more offensive to Bourgeois yet, the artist’s explanation of it was boring. The rest of us sort of nodded in agreement. There were a few minutes of tension, but eventually the group moved on to another topic. Right then I saw why so many people respected and adored her. She cared. She cared a lot. Not just about what she made but about what other people made, too. She cared because it was important. I liked that.

To this day, I am thankful Bourgeois possibly thought I was someone else and still allowed me to sit around her house all day; because of her I felt welcome in New York City. So now, every Valentine’s Day is my New York anniversary, and I think of her.

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