Born in France in 1911, Louise Bourgeois spent most of her life in New York City before her death in 2010 at the age of 98. After an astounding 70-year career, Bourgeois is remembered as one of the most influential female contemporary artists of the 20th Century, working across a dynamic range of multi-media, including sculpture, installation art, drawing, printmaking, and tapestry. Acquaint yourself with this legendary artist in ten essential works.
One of Louise Bourgeois’ most iconic works, ‘Maman’ was part of a sculpture series profiling the spider as a central theme in the late 1990s. Standing over 30 feet tall, ‘Maman’ is a mammoth-sized sculpture cast in steel and marble, that provides viewers with a holistic experience as they walk beneath and interact with it. Bourgeois explained, “The spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitos. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”
The events of Bourgeois’ childhood became a common theme throughout her career. Bourgeois took on the role of nurse as her mother suffered from and eventually succumbed to Spanish Flu after World War I. Bourgeois also witnessed her father’s many affairs, including a long-term affair with her live-in nanny, Sadie Gordon Richmond. In ‘The Destruction of the Father‘, Bourgeois’ first installation piece, she depicts her father lying dismembered on the family dinner table – a place where she suffered many painful exchanges growing up. Bourgeois’ stated that this piece allowed her to confront her father’s betrayal, and process poisonous feelings of aggression that she held on to through her adult life.
Fabric was an integral part of Louise Bourgeois’ early life. Growing up with parents who owned a tapestry restoration business, she was 12 years old when she began drawing in the missing sections of tapestry that required repair. The title of her work ‘Peaux de lapins, chiffons ferrailles à vendre‘ refers to a traditional song that street vendors would sing when she was a child in France. The suggestive nature of this piece, showcasing ethereal bits of fabric hanging in a manner that’s reminiscent of genitalia, is common throughout Bourgeois’ work.
Louise Bourgeois’ Cell Series is considered to be something of an autobiography – the artist’s version of personal therapy used to overcome a childhood filled with anxiety, pain, and fear of abandonment. ‘Cell (The Last Climb)‘ includes a number of symbolic objects that Bourgeois collected throughout her life, including the staircase from her Brooklyn studio of 25 years, which she was forced to leave due to local construction. This work was intended to be interactive, allowing the viewer to enter the cell, but due to the object’s fragile state, it is usually prohibited during exhibitions.
One of Louise Bourgeois’ first large-scale sculptures, C.O.Y.O.T.E. (originally titled ‘The Blind Leading the Blind’) stems from the artist’s childhood memories of hiding under the kitchen table watching her parents’ legs move around the room as they made dinner. It was not until preparing for an exhibition at Xavier Fourcade’s Gallery in 1979 that Bourgeois repainted the black and red piece in pink, and renamed it ‘C.O.Y.O.T.E.’, which stands for ‘Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics’. The text was taken from a piece written by Margot Saint James, arguing the right of prostitutes to a worker’s organization.
Louise Bourgeois internalized very little; she used her art and her writing to express herself and investigate her subconscious. Bourgeois kept hundreds of diaries and letters, some of which were included in the book Destruction of the Father/Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews, and a box of which was included in an exhibition at the Freud Museum in 2012. Bourgeois once said, “You can stand anything if you write it down…words put in connection and can open up new relations.” Her diaries – written and spoken (into a tape recorder), and her drawings – provide a glimpse into her creative process, and show her deep fascination with psychoanalysis – specifically, Freud’s theories of the uncanny.
‘Quarantania’ was part of Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture series that were created in the 1940s. Inspired by the Surrealists she created a series of totemic sculptures that were referred to as Personnages. The figures are meant to represent shuttles, one of the tools that Bourgeois’ parents used when they restored tapestries at their family-owned business. The objects are placed (rather precariously balanced) in small clusters that represent a small family.
So often drawing inspiration from her personal life, it is no surprise that Louise Bourgeois’ work in the late 1940s focused on the female form, with two biological children and an adopted third child soon after. ‘Femme Maison‘, translating to ‘housewife’ in French, shows the nude bodies of females with the heads replaced by houses and buildings. Bourgeois revisited this work in the early 2000s by translating the paintings into sculptural forms.
This hanging sculpture showcases Bourgeois’ experiments with male and female anatomy. The title, ‘Fillette’, means ‘little girl’ in French, which allows the viewers to interpret the sculpture differently than at first glance. The subject can clearly be viewed as a phallus, but upon further observation, you can see two round forms that could represent the tops of two legs attaching to their hip joints. Bourgeois stated that she viewed “masculine attributes to be very delicate”, which is exemplified in this work of art.
Much of Louise Bourgeois’ work is characterized by fierce themes of sexuality, psychoanalysis, and betrayal. But her 2006 work, ‘10 am is When You Come to Me‘, showcases the formidable artist’s softer side. This multipart work of 20 hand-painted musical score sheets depicts Bourgeois’ hand with her assistant, Jerry Gorovoy’s. Gorovoy was a frequent model for Bourgeois, but this series warmly celebrates the 30-year friendship between the two. Serving as the artist’s loyal friend, assistant, and confidant, Bourgeois often depicts Gorovoy as something of her savior from isolation. The artist made ten unique versions of this work, including a larger-scale series featuring 40 sheets.