I remember the room was dark, her clothes were
dark. I remember my questions were overprepared. I was so scared
I read them from the page, blocked out her answers my tape recorder
caught, though not the sculpted face and my surprise as her whole
demeanor reversed. She was interested, left the room, returned
As a beginning art writer I had studied bodies
of work chronologically then interviewed thirty painters, including
Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Motherwell, Jack Tworkov... I wanted
the answers to simple questions like why art lasts. I saw in some
painters' work a slow, pervasive projection of the biological
body into the art object. Louise Bourgeois had once said: "For
me, sculpture is the body. My body is my sculpture." I wondered
how this abstraction from the personal creates a personal identity.
At the MoMA retrospective of Bourgeois's work
(November 6, 1982 - February 8, 1983) you could see an artistic
genealogy. An early sketch hung beside the latest work a
juxtaposition like great-grandmother and great-grandchild, like
an architect's plan and then the building. Bourgeois's imagery from
the beginning was a self-split. The "Femme-Maison,"
or "Woman House," drawings from 1946-47 are houses instead
of a head. The hips, vagina, legs are recognizable, sensuous.
Femme Maison, 1946-47.
Oil and ink on linen
36" x 14"
"The vision of a little girl trapped and
looking out at the world?" I used her own words as a question
early in the interview. To which she answered: "Yes, the
feeling of being trapped...and the theme of escape...On the one
hand you are trapped by the past, and there is nothing you can
do about it except running from it...the art comes from those
Even then, married to Robert Goldwater and with
three children she was physically trapped in another way.
Louise Bourgeois: "All the drawings on linen
and the tinted--not painted tinted self-portrait at
that period [the group of "Femme-Maison" ca. 1946-47]
were...sketches or notations for sculptures. I had three children,
and I didn't have a place, physically, to do the sculpture...In
'41 we moved to..."Stuyvesant Folly" on 18th Street. It
had an immense mansard roof...I went up to the roof and did the
sculpture because I had the space...There is a very significant
evolution there where the retirement, the withdrawal, in the maison
evolves. And some kind of strength. There's no courage there. It's
just strength to go on. Then the presences appear."
63.75" x 12" x 12"
The "presences" are life-height polar-thin
forms the features of which are abstracted to gesture and posture.
They are a feeling, a presence. Some are called portraits of specific
people, ("Portrait of C.Y.," "Portrait of Jean-
Louis"). Some are named more generically: "Dagger Child,"
"Woman in the Shape of a Shuttle," "Pillar,"
"Pregnant Woman," "Spoon Woman."
Barbara Flug Colin: "Some were named for
a state of mind, like 'Persistent Antagonism'...?"
Bourgeois: "So I have moved from the maison
to the occupants of the maison, namely my father and my
mother and the mistress and the children."
So, in the next phase of Louise Bourgeois's work,
"presences" interrelate on the same base: two on "Brother
and Sister," five on "Quarantania 1, 1947-53."
The five tall, painted wood bodies have different features. One,
cut out in the lower body, holds an oval similar to the form in
others cut out in the upper body. All attached to and by the wood
Bourgeois: "Attached. They are dependent
on each other for better or worse."
Bronze with white and blue patina, stainless steel base
80.5" x 27" x 27"
By 1955 Bourgeois's group expands. In the painted
wood sculpture "One and Others," there are many figures
on one base. Some are tall, recalling the "presences."
Some are short, predicting future phallic shapes that will grow
At the beginning of the 1960's there is a visible
departure into organic material: the use of plaster combined with
wood and self-hardening clay. And the forms themselves
lairs and still lifes, spirals and amoebas seem organic
in shape and material. They seem an exploration of the body we
had previously seen from outside, through holes and openings into
the felt insides. Interiors of the body and maybe the mind. The
"structure" of the original "Femme-Maison"
is gone. Entered?
Bourgeois: "It is a progression. The strength
you need to explore your own fate and your own situation...It
is a psychological evolution."
Colin: "We name those 'people outside' but
they're also something about us."
Bourgeois: "Definitely.... [The psychological
evolution] is familiarization and acceptance that was not present
at the beginning...it is a dissolution of the fear.
"If you ask me fear of what fear of
loneliness...fear of not being part of the cluster...fear of being
unable to cope with the situations that you are in...and the desire
to escape. So later on not only do I accept the self but I enjoy
For the most part Bourgeois's works of the 40's
and 50's are in painted and stained wood. In the 60's the body of
work is increasingly sensuous, increasingly intimate with the self.
White plaster and self-hardening clay (and infrequently bronze)are
the artist's materials. The "Lair" ca. 1964-5, "Torso/Self-Portrait"
ca. 1963-4, and other works of this period are white curvaceous
housing for interiors that are somewhat exposed or that have access
14" x 16" x 16"
Bourgeois: "'The Lairs' are a conscious view
of the outside world where you are trapped.
Colin: "And the forms are of your self?"
Bourgeois: "Yes. Right."
Colin: "From the beginning there is some
thread of consistency."
Bourgeois: "Oh yes. Definitely."
Later in the 60's Bourgeois's "Unconscious
Landscapes" seem like images of the unconscious literally
emerging. Because she entered?
Bourgeois: "It is not entering the self.
It is consciousness of the self."
"Unconscious Landscape" and "End
of Softness" (1967) have grounds from which rounded protrusions
emerge, and thus these works are related to the groups from the
40's and 50's. In the early 60's the protrusions literally break
through the ground. They get higher, become independent of their
ground. Then they become the ground.
Colin: "The shapes that emerge in the 60's
are sensuous, and they have something very much to do with the
body. They are not something that you are seeing from the outside.
It is something that you are "
"Experience," in Webster's Third
New International Dictionary, is "a trial." At the
beginning of the MoMA retrospective was a video in which Louise
Bourgeois described an early trauma: her father and the mistress.
A trial? Beginning experience metamorphoses.
Colin: "The 1974 work 'The Destruction of
the Father' is an extension of what preceded it?"
Bourgeois: " Right. It's an attempt at coming
to terms with what was really overwhelming...It is related to
'Confrontation' later, where the father is actually transcended
by the daughter..."
Colin: "The forms in both pieces are the
forms that have emerged previously."
Colin: "The forms of your self."
Bourgeois:"Yes. Right. Formally it's completely
consistent. [Though] there are several themes quite different..."
The forms of your self. How old could Louise
Bourgeois have been at the time of the interview in 1982? My age
now, in 2000. She was full-bodied, sensuous, long hair in a bun.
I with my athletic body and my short hair was and am as different
from her as my students who are physically challenged are from
me. Yet we all respond to one another. At the subsequent Brooklyn
Museum show ("Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory, Works
1982-1993")my students wrote poems in the museum.
Doors that won't open
can't close either.
through the window.
Kelli, Grade 8
What did Kelli see? Herself. She was not yet a
In the early works of Louise Bourgeois there is
a disconnection, a disparity between the "given" facades
and the hidden aspects of the self that cannot find expression.
In the series of engraved prints "He Disappeared into Complete
Silence," people are depicted as edifices. The accompanying
one-page stories tell of a subject's disconnection from another
person or from language or, in one story, from what is sweet and
hidden a coveted piece of sugar, uneaten, whole below ground.
In the accompanying illustration an amorphous form is floating
in the edifice floor. It is the form later integrated into "Maison
Fragile, 1982." What is sweet and coveted is no longer
buried below ground. It is available in the grounded self.
Bourgeois: "In the 'Femme-Maison'
the child was entrapped and at the end, forty years later
the 'Maisons Fragiles' they are fragile but they
are free-standing. The differences have been built up. And this
runs through many decades step by step."
The final "Maison Fragile" in
Bourgeois's MoMA show is not as fragile as the 1978 one. In the
'78 "Maison" the material is rusted. In the MoMA
show, "Untitled, 1947," an ink-and-gouache on paper,
a drawing made when Bourgeois didn't have the space to do sculpture,
is shown on the wall beside her most recent work: six unevenly
spaced floors held by four poles almost touching the ceiling.
Your hand can enter the six floors if you can get behind the piece
of organically shaped black wood, a remnant of a facade.
Hung on the wall beside her most recent piece,
the drawing from forty years before predicts it, shows the consistency.
Bourgeois: "It's a...coming to terms with
yourself, with your fears, and with your own position in the world,
which is fragile, but oooh, you can cope with it."
Colin: "It's meant to be entered. It's opened."
Bourgeois: "Oh yes. It can be investigated.
It can be questioned...discussed back and forth...it calls for
Colin: "Can you talk about the material?"
Femme Maison, 1981.
48.125" x 47" x 49.875"
Bourgeois: "Well, there's a great element
of pleasure in the black marble. The pleasure to hack away at
something which offers enough resistance.... The fact that you
have found a a somebody you can attack....the pleasure
that comes from attacking a material that can resist you. And
this has a direct symbolism with human relations.
"I enjoy a material I can wrestle with....the
marble you cannot hurt: whatever you take away, whatever you chop
away, whatever you sand away...you change that piece, but you
do not destroy it. This is the kind of relation I enjoy with people.
I enjoy people who can give me good resistance and take care of
my attacking impulses...There are many kinds of aggression, all
kinds of emotion. And what you have to say...it cannot be emotional.
It has to be defined. It is a form of articulation. [The stainless
steel "Maison Fragile" and the later marble one]
are both right. They are both representing something I want to
say. I suspect that I'm more articulate in the stainless steel...in
the end it's the rational proof that I am looking after. But I
had more fun with the marble. The marble was much more sensuous.
I really had fun. I have fun carving marble. I can't destroy it.
I'm not going to be destroyed either, by the way."
Wye, Deborah. Louise Bourgeois. New York: The Museum of Modern
Kotik, Charlotta; Sultan, Terry; and Leigh, Christian. Louise
Bourgeois: the locus of memory, works 1982-1993. New York: Harry
N. Abrams in association with the Brooklyn Museum, 1994.
BOOKS OF INTEREST
Bernadac, Marie-Laure. Louise Bourgeois. Paris and New
York: Flammarion, 1996. US distributor: Abbeville Publishing Group.
Bernadac, Marie-Laure,and Obrist,Hans-Ulrich.
Destruction of the father, Reconstruction of the Father: Writings
and Interviews, 1923-1997. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press in association
with Violette Editions, London, 1998.
Gardner, Paul. Louise Bourgeois. New York:
Weiermair, Peter, editor. Louise Bourgeois.
Zurich, Switzerland: Edition Stemmle,1995.
Bourgeois, Louise with Lawrence Rinder; foreword
by Josef Helfenstein. Louise Bourgeois, Drawings and Observations.
Berkeley, CA: University Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive,
University of California; Boston: Little, Brown 1995.
Maybach, Chris and Paul Gardner, producers. Art City: Making
It in Manhattan. Los Angeles, CA: Twelve Films, 1996.
Kent, James, producer/director. The Age of
Anxiety. Alexandria, VA: PBS Home Video, 1997.