New York artist Louise Bourgeois (born 1911) was one of the most celebrated sculptors in the period following World War II. Although the stylistic evolution of her work defies art historical categorization and her iconography is completely intimate and overtly sexual, Bourgeois' sculptures are exemplary of 20th-century artistic currents during the most controversial period of American art.
At the age of 82, Louise Bourgeois represented the United States in the prestigious 1993 Venice Biennale. Bourgeois' sculptures were on special exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum and at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C.; her prints were on exhibit at the Centre Pompidou in Paris; and a selection of her drawings were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Although this may have been a hallmark year in Bourgeois' lengthy career, her relatively quiet emergence into American mainstream art began over fifty years earlier in New York City.
Bourgeois was born in Paris on December 25, 1911, and remained in France until 1938. She was the middle child of three born to Josephine Fauriaux and Louis Bourgeois. The family ran a tapestry gallery/workshop below their Paris apartment on the boulevard Saint Germain. Throughout her education, Bourgeois worked in the family business restoring tapestries, but her parent's avocation was not her own. In 1932 she earned a baccalauréat at Lycée Fénelon in Paris where her interest in geometry, developed during her school years, enabled her to pursue an education at the Sorbonne to study mathematics and philosophy. However, her love of geometry, coupled with an interest in the arts cultivated at the tapestry gallery, led Bourgeois to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and a career in the arts.
In pursuit of a more liberal and less rigid artistic education, Bourgeois left the school. Between 1932 and 1938 she studied with such prominent artists and philosophers as Ferdnand Léger, Roger Bissiére, and Paul Colin. She attended various ateliers, including the Académie Julian, Académie Ranson, and the Académie de la Grande-Chaumiére. Her interest in the visual arts and the international spirit of early 20th-century Paris also led her to the Louvre where she worked as a docent and cultivated her knowledge of art history at the Ecole de Louvre.
In 1938 Bourgeois married art historian Robert Goldwater and moved to New York City. Upon her arrival in New York, Bourgeois immersed herself in painting, printmaking, and drawing. She enrolled at the Art Students League and fostered friendships with members of the American Abstract Artists group who were advocates of Cubism, Biomorphic Abstraction, and Surrealism in America. Bourgeois' preoccupation with the intellectual conception of line, surface, and form (principles of Analytical Cubism) became the stylistic foundation for her works on paper and canvas. Within one year she was exhibiting her work in print exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Print Club, the Library of Congress, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
In the 1940s Bourgeois began exhibiting her paintings in many Abstract Expressionist group shows, and in 1945 she was given her first solo exhibition at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York. During this decade, while her colleagues were turning toward pure abstraction, Bourgeois embraced aspects of Surrealism and Automatism exemplified in her Femme-Maison series (ca. 1946-1948), and she began to develop a very personal symbolic iconography based upon the events that shaped her life in France. It was also at this time that Bourgeois began to explore the three-dimensional qualities of her designs and all but abandoned painting for sculpture. In 1949 she made her sculpture debut at the Peridot Gallery.
Bourgeois almost immediately investigated the possibilities of wood. These sculpted totem-like forms, reminiscent of a shuttle used for weaving, became symbols for her family members and a signature shape associated with Bourgeois throughout her career in the 1950s and 1960s. Spiral Woman (1953, New York: Robert Miller Gallery) is a six-foot wooden abstraction of the movement of a woman through space. Blind Leading the Blind (ca. 1947-1949, New York: private collection), a totemic composition related to the Gospels according to Matthew 15, is associated with the blind confidence in people who influenced Bourgeois' life.
Bourgeois turned from the media of wood and plaster to latex, marble, and bronze in the 1960s and 1970s. She began to sculpt landscapes exemplified by Clamart (1968, New York: Kolin Collection), the burial place of Bourgeois' parents and grandparents, and Cumulus I (1969, Paris: Musée National d'Art Moderne), a study of cloud formations. Both are studies of the calming and tranquil effects of the heavens and earth, and each reflects Bourgeois' love of repetitive conical shapes erupting through a thin layer of skin.
Concurrently, Bourgeois began to explore her sexual psyche through similar forms. Unlike her Femme Maison of ca. 1947 (Boston: Barbara Krakow Gallery), Femme Maison 81 (New York: private collection) is no longer a surreal exposé of a female whose head is replaced with her home. It is a series of phallic totems growing in various directions. Her bronze 1984 Spiral Woman (New York: Dannheisser Collection) is a legged phallic symbol wrapped in a thick boa-like coil. Fillette (1968, New York: private collection), an erect uncircumcised penis, and Fragile Goddess (ca. 1970, New York: private collection), a headless and limbless female shape with protruding breasts and belly, are perhaps the most sexually explicit works of the artist's mature years. They relate to the aggressiveness and helplessness of the masculine female.
In 1994 she displayed The Red Rooms at Peter Blum's in New York. The work consists of two bedrooms representing parent and child respectively. The rooms, drenched in red and rife with symbolic furnishings, typify her highly personal themes. The Red Rooms is intended to expose moods from her childhood. Her spider drawings, The Nest, symbolic of the well-nurtured family, were seen in that same year at the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst in Ghent.
Bourgeois taught for many years in the public schools in Great Neck, Long Island, as well as at Brooklyn College and the Pratt Institute. She was given a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1982 and at the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Múller in Otterlo, The Netherlands, in 1991. Although Bourgeois will forever be immortalized through a Mapplethorpe portrait of the artist with Fillette in her arms, her oeuvre will exemplify the variety of artistic expressions among 20th-century American sculptors.
Further Reading on Louise Bourgeois
The most comprehensive information on the artist can be found in the catalogues Louise Bourgeois (accompanying her retrospective in Otterlo, 1991, and New York, 1982), Rubenstein's American Women Sculptors (1990), and Watson-Jones' Contemporary American Women Sculptors (1986). A discussion between the sculptor Alain Kirili and Bourgeois about the artist's early years and the symbolic nature of her work ("The Passion for Sculpture") was published in Arts Magazine (March 1989) and is particularly enlightening. Bourgeois was also an accomplished art critic, and her articles "Freud's Toys, " Artforum (January 1990), and "Obsession (of Gaston Lachaise), " Artforum (April 1992) are both insightful and instructive. They reveal Bourgeois' evaluation of contemporary art in terms of sexual psychoanalysis.
Additional Biography Sources
Bernadac, Marie-Laure, Louise Bourgeois, Flammarion, 1996.
Bourgeois, Louise, Louise Bourgeois: Drawings & Observations, University Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive University of California, 1995.