at University of Southern California, Fisher Museum of Art. (through 3 December 3, 2022)
Reviewed by Margaret Lazzari
Louise Bourgeois is widely recognized for her sculptures and installations, but Louise Bourgeois: What is The Shape of This Problem is a wonderful opportunity to immerse yourself in her perhaps-lesser-known prints, fabric work and writings. This exhibit contains over 100 works that are personal, experimental, and revealing. The installation is dense and full of relatively small works, mostly hung salon style. It takes patience to go through the exhibit, but it is rewarding for its psychological complexity and conceptual richness.
Louise Bourgeois suffered all her life with distressing memories and anxieties stemming from her childhood and countered them with obsessive creative activities. If she woke up at night, unable to go back to sleep, she would write and draw. As she herself said, “I know that when I finish a drawing, my anxiety level decreases. When I draw it means that something bothers me, but I don’t know what it is. So it is the treatment of anxiety.”
Bourgeois was also attracted to the meditative and repetitive aspects of sewing, as she remarked, “I always had the fear of being separated and abandoned. The sewing is my attempt to keep things together and make things whole.” There were always stacks of paper where she lived, available for her to draw and write anytime of the day or night. And her writings were direct, honest and soul-searching. Some of these drawings and writings became the foundations for prints in this show.
Some prints reproduce straight-forward linear drawings, such as the 1947/2005 series, “He Disappeared into Complete Silence,” with images of simplified architecture and odd interior spaces, done with engraving, drypoint, aquatint, photogravure, and watercolor additions. The 11 prints were originally intended as a small artist’s book paired with Bourgeois’ writing, each with a short story of missed connections, such as a man going deaf, a man telling a story too fast for anyone to understand, or a woman dressed for a date who never shows up.
But where the exhibit, What is The Shape of The Problem, really shines is in the later series, the prints of Bourgeois’ work made from 1990 to 2006 when she was age 79 to 95. The series, Ode à L’Oubli (Ode to Forgetting), 2004, are 34 prints after Bourgeois’ original fabric book by the same name from 2002. Bourgeois made the originals on rectangles of cloth cut from her own blouses, towels she received as wedding gifts, or her husband’s handkerchief. The fabrics were then pieced or embroidered, with text added, with the theme of remembering and forgetting. The garment fragments that at one time had touched her body conveyed a feeling of intimacy and fragility.
The print reproduction of Ode à L’Oubli is a technical marvel. Each print is done on vintage fabric that matches what Bourgeois used in her original artist’s book. Bourgeois’ collaborator, Judith Solodkin, even applied tea to vintage fabric to match stains on the original fabric. Printed imagery and text were added, as well as machine-embroidery, to create reproductions that feel as precious and unique as the original one-of-a-kind work.
Another poignant series of prints is Hours of the Day, 2006, with 24 prints on fabric with lines of musical staffs, an oval clock face on the right, and on the left, a few lines of poetic text taken from Bourgeois’ journals. Bourgeois revealed some of her feelings embedded in these prints: “…respect the hours and help them to succeed each other harmoniously – the heavy hours of the afternoon and the busy hours of the evening – the silent hours of the night.” And, indeed, the text provides the greatest richness of feelings and emotions in these prints, which otherwise visually suggest nothing more than the monotony of slowly passing hours. The text is poetic:
Emptiness in time and space
I need emptiness
The garden is beautiful and empty
My future, my days are all clear and empty
I have time.
There are references to mythical characters and great sagas, coupled with sardonic commentary, made even more expressive by the smaller font size of the second line.
The Return of the hero
Long time no see
Other lines are self-deprecating but convey feelings familiar to almost everyone:
All my actions today
Will aim to avoid
The things I have to do
Yet another fabulous print series in this exhibition is Crochet I-V, 1998, which are Mixografia prints on handmade paper. Bourgeois sometimes “drew” on paper with thread and fabric and crocheting, or in this case, with braided cord. She often associated the long threads or cords to the continuum of time, to weaving or to braiding. Done in collaboration with Shaye Remba, Director of Mixografia, these prints imitate the raised quality of the original works and their sharp detail. I had the strong sensation that I was looking at the original cord that Bourgeois laid down. The effect is striking and very beautiful. (Mixografia is a print shop and publisher in Los Angeles known for low-relief prints on hand-made paper with remarkable detail and texture.)
The deep dive into Bourgeois’ psyche leads to the discovery that images and symbols may mean something different to her than they may mean to others. The spider appears frequently in Bourgeois’ art, and this exhibit contains several small prints of them. For many, spiders are the stuff of nightmares, but to Bourgeois they are symbols of protection, like little weavers who untiringly mend what is broken. She wrote, “…my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and as useful as a spider.”
The last series in the show, tucked into a dark room off one of the main galleries, were eight holograms surprisingly unlike anything else in the exhibition. The works were done in collaboration with C-Project, a 1990s holographic studio in New York, and are life-sized images of small sculptures that Bourgeois was making at the time. Holograms are created by bouncing laser beams off an object, which then burn a glass plate to produce an image.
At first, the holograms look like framed, dull, solid, blood-red rectangles. The images are not visible from every angle. But when you move to the sweet spot for each hologram, an eerie space pops inward, complete with small furniture, stairs, or walls. There is so much dimension and detail that they seem uncanny. The images come and go in shades of red, at once ghostly and crisp. At times, glare and reflections obscure these little floating spaces, making you aware, once again, that it is all an illusion – nothing but flat glass.
NOTE: Two videos of Bourgeois’ holograms are available at:
https://www.youtube.com/shorts/qVmQkgkHWm8 | https://www.youtube.com/shorts/LunF2y0FB1U
At an early age, Louise Bourgeois worked in her family’s business repairing antique tapestries. Her job was to draw in the missing, damaged parts so the tapestry could be rewoven and the image restored. That work of revealing, fixing and restoring is a thread that runs through all her art. On one hand, Bourgeois said bracingly, “The subject of pain is the business I am in – to give meaning and shape to frustration and suffering. The existence of pain cannot be denied. I propose no remedies or excuses.” On the other hand, she noted, “Art is a guarantee of sanity.” And that is the theme of most of the work in this show.
It is interesting to speculate about Bourgeois’ interest in making prints and the relationship between her originals and these prints where collaborators painstakingly reproduce the original. To me, the print series are the repackaging and reframing of the Bourgeois’ continuous stream-of-consciousness, near-manic output of her drawings and ruminations. The prints make those fragments organized and accessible. I admire that Bourgeois was willing to take risks with experimental collaborations while in her 80s and 90s, and to stretch the scope and the reach of her work.
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The University of Southern California Fisher Museum of Art is located at 823 West Exposition Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90089.
Margaret Lazzari is an Artist, Writer, and Professor Emerita at USC Roski School of Art and Design. margaretlazzari.net
Karen Schifman says
I enjoyed your article Margaret and cannot wait to see the exhibit.