Spiders, Bodies, and The New York Sky: The Big and Small Genius of Louise Bourgeois

In 'Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait' at New York's Museum of Modern Art, a survey of the sculptor's works reveals the roots of her practice and her inner pain and joy.

The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY via MoMA

There, welcoming you to an exhibition of 265 prints, 23 sculptures, nine drawings, and two early paintings all by Louise Bourgeois, is one of her giant bronze spiders.

This spider’s legs encircle one of Bourgeois’ 62 ‘cells,’ in the second floor atrium of New York’s Museum of Modern Art with images of cuddly animals and seats tattily arranged within. The cage looks as unwelcoming any cage, but with an odd comfy domesticity around it too. You feel a bit like Hansel and Gretel observing the witch’s gingerbread house.

Around the cage and spider are drawings and sketches, and these serve as a cogent introduction to the larger exhibition, Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait. Here are tubes and spirals ("you can get twisted and strangled by your emotions," Bourgeois said) and tentacles and innards of bodies; shapes that look like worms and deflated balloons and human organs.

Everything of human life fascinated Bourgeois and it all, viscerally, found its way into her prints (of which she made 1,200 in all). Painful memories, jealousy, anger, anxiety, loneliness, despair, her intense engagement with psychoanalysis in the 1950s and 60s, the joy and not-so-joy of parenting: all are filtered through her work.

Her printmaking and painting took place in the 1940s, before Bourgeois turned to what became known best for—sculpture—and then again in the late 1980s, continuing with it until her death, age 98, in 2010.

For Bourgeois, as the MoMA notes to the show make clear, there was no contradiction between these two very different artistic practices: they allowed her “to say the same things, but in different ways.”

When she was ill she drew her body, when she observed how domesticity trapped women, she grafted houses on to their bodies. But over and over again in the main section of the exhibition, you notice whatever the trials of the female body being evoked, the blissful smiles of the woman’s face remains. Is that the painted face of happiness Bourgeois was imagining, or a expression of resilient spirit?

Not all her 'cells' were as darkly ambivalent as the comfort-imbued cage in the atrium; in one of the gallery rooms 'Cell VI' is a beautifully painted wood and metal (blue and white) evocation of a serene private space, with a blue stool in the middle.

Bourgeois burrowed into psyche and bodies, into physical spaces like nests and the human mind. The towers she imagined, first as sketches and then models, were skinny and looked about to topple. Other prints—in gouache, watercolor, pencil, and ink--feature contraptions sprouting heads and wires. Her feminized remaining of St. Sebastian sees dainty arrows piercing female bodies, and those figures are smiling.

The exhibition is effectively and extremely illuminatingly broken up into a number of sections: Architecture Embodied, Abstracted Emotions, Fabric of Memory, Alone and Together, Forces of Nature, and Lasting Impressions.

This means you move through Bourgeois’ images of buildings (and wonder if they are places of refuge or entrapment), body parts, dresses and pieces of cloth, representations of the self, of plants, wind storms, rivers, shrubs and land topography, and late-in-life large-scale printmaking—and all of these coalesce to build a multi-faceted portrait of Bourgeois’ life and character, and her practice.

Art, she once said, was her tool of “survival” and “her guarantee of sanity.” Also: "Life is made up of experiences and emotions. The objects I have created make them tangible."

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In a glass dome a woman sits alone, while in another she sits with an umbilical cord attached to a flying child: piercing observations on solitude, motherhood, and maternal attachment and abandonment. Bourgeois traced her own feelings of abandonment back to when she was 3 and her father left for World War I. (In later images she evokes images of her own birth rather than her children's.)

In another painted bronze, completed after arriving in New York from her native Paris, her son Jean-Louis is represented as a skyscraper: "I wanted my son to be as beautiful as the skyscrapers here," she said.

Another installation features the words: "Do you know the New York sky? You should, it is supposed to be known. It is outstanding. It is a serious thing. Can you remember the Paris sky? How unreliable, most of time grey, often warm and damp, never quite perfect, indulging in clouds and shades; rain, breeze and sun sometimes managing to appear together. But the New York sky is blue, utterly blue. The light is white, a glorying white and the air is strong and it is healthy too. There is no foolishness about that sky. It is a beautiful thing. It is pure."

A series of portraits feature women with flowing, electric-shock hairstyles, and a coupe having sex, with the woman, wearing heels, dominant. A self-portrait features three sets of facial features all looking out in different directions. A painting of a house comes with tangled networks of tubes flowing from it in red and blue, like life-pumping vessels of blood and water.

"The spiral is an attempt at controlling the chaos," Bourgeois said. The outward movement of a spiral represented "giving…trust and positive energy," while winding inward embodied a "tightening" and "retreating."

All kinds of objects are imbued with emotion for Bourgeois. Alongside one drawing of a building is the text: "Once there was a girl and she loved a man. They had a date next to the eighth street station of the sixth street subway. She had put on her good clothes and a new hat. Somehow he could not come. So the purpose of this picture is to show how beautiful she was. I really mean that she was beautiful."

A picture of a room of ladders hanging from a ceiling comes with a potted story of a man's deafness. In 'Triptych for the Red Room,' a woman with hugely long hair holds a child, both leaning back and screaming--both overcome with hysteria. A model of a face, mouth open, is covered with small medical plasters.

There is a room of Bourgeois' work with fabrics, which she began in her eighties (using the material of the clothes she had stored throughout her life), with geometric shapes, more twisting tubes, and stitched meditations such as "I had a flashback of something that never existed."

In the final room, there is a stunning hanging sculpture, body arched so the stretched out arms are almost meeting the feet.

The final room of printed images, all abstract, feature Bourgeois' vision of life at its most elemental: babies in amniotic sacs, a female figure, an embracing couple, and again tube-like shapes of brilliant red bringing to mind twisted capillaries.

On the way out, observing the huge spider hovering over the cell, do look up, and see one of the exhibition's surprises: another spider, smaller and black, crawling up a MoMA wall. The lesson is to look closely with Bourgeois: her work is both complex and inviting, dense and accessible, and always demanding--rewardingly so--of our attention and engagement.

Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait is at New York City's MoMA, until January 28, 2018.