The name Louis Bourgeois has become justly synonymous with her giant spiders and other large-scale sculptures. But there has always been another, more intimate dimension to her work. One that is beautifully explored in The Museum of Modern Art’s exquisite show of her prints and illustrated books, Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait.
This under-appreciated aspect of Bourgeois’ genius, ranging over seven decades of her long and productive life, includes 265 prints, as well as about two-dozen sculptures and a smattering of drawings and paintings. The exhibit was curated by Deborah Wye, a long-time Bourgeois friend and scholar, who was also responsible for the museum’s 1982 Bourgeois retrospective, the first that MoMa ever gave a female artist, and is now its curator emerita of prints and illustrated books. The work is striking for its delicacy and hyper-attenuation, as well as for its poignant psychological and erotic content; it makes palpable Bourgeois’ famous motto: “Art is a guaranty for sanity.”
Bourgeois has said that her work was her survival mechanism, her form of therapy, and that is readily apparent from the pieces on display—beautiful Band-Aids to dress a brilliant, wounded psyche. But her art is far from merely confessional. Bourgeois is a true master of multiple mediums, including print. She studied printmaking at the Art Students’ League (one of her teachers was Will Barnet), and owned her own printing press. Indeed, over her lifetime Bourgeois created over a thousand individual prints.
The show unspools on two floors, with the museum’s second-floor atrium housing the inevitable spider, in this case Spider (1997), a 15-foot tall steel arachnid that serves as a canopy (protector or predator?) arching over one of Bourgeois’ so-called “Cells,” a mesh-enclosed cylinder containing an assemblage of totemic items, including a large swatch of vintage fabric—a reference to the Bourgeois family’s tapestry restoration business, which frequently informs Bourgeois’ work. A series of 16 magnificent, large, luxurious etchings done between 2006 and 2009 line the walls of the atrium; they have botanical themes (leaves, vines, wheat sheaves) and are notable for their sensual, sinuous lines and size—elegantly narrow and a full five feet tall, like the panels of a folding screen. Also striking are their revealing titles; “Opening Up,” “The Unfolding” “Losing It” and “The Awakening.”
Taken as a whole, the show itself is like a giant piece of fabric woven from the individual strands of Bourgeois’ lifelong themes—betrayal, abandonment, loss—themes she repeatedly returned to, as if by telling the same story multiple ways she could alter its trajectory. Indeed the medium of printmaking itself, typically done in sequences and/or editions, is by its very nature iterative, and Bourgeois exploited that aspect of the technique to its maximum degree.
The entrance to the main exhibit is a show stopper: 36 small prints on fabric (39 digital; six screen) from the 2007 illustrated book, The Fragile, lined up like squares on a quilt. Tinted with small splashes of indigo blue and rose, they feature delicate minimalist images: a pair of breasts, a spider, a profile. The rest of the show is organized by over-arching themes: “Architecture Embodied,” “Abstracted Emotions,” “Fabric of Memory,” “Alone and Together,” “Forces of Nature” and “Lasting Impressions,” and each section contains superlative examples of Bourgeois’s singular vision.
“Architecture Embodied,” for instance, starts with a small but potent work, Femme Maison (1984), a photogravure on pink chine colle: it depicts a nude woman with a house in place of her torso and head. Not surprisingly, it became a feminist emblem in the 1970s; earlier versions of Femme Maison include an antic house with legs, arms and long flowing hair (1947) and a striking painted version, where the hair resembles chimney smoke (1946-47).
Bourgeois’ sly humor and surrealist bent are sharply expressed in a series of plates from her famous illustrated book, He Disappeared Into Complete Silence (1947). One plate tells the simple tale of a beautiful girl being stood up on a date; another plate depicts the story of an angry man who cuts up his wife, makes her into stew and has a dinner party.
Louise Bourgeois. Lullaby (detail). 2006. Series of 25 screenprints on fabric. Sheet: 15 1/8 x 11 3/8″ (38.4 x 28.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.
In the section titled “Abstracted Emotions,” there is a beautiful piece called Lullaby (2006) which consists of a series of simple geometric and biomorphic shapes created by tracing the outlines of household items such as a candy dish or sardine tin. Printed in bright shades of red on backgrounds of musical staves, they look like ideograms from an unknown language, and are also reminiscent of Matisse cutouts. Equally mesmerizing is the series based on Bourgeois’s obsession with spirals, starting with several engravings that look like labyrinths and evolving into the image of woman entrapped in a spiral as if unable to emerge from a cocoon, depicted both as a small powerful bronze sculpture (1984) and reinvented as a series of striking dry points (2001-2003).
Both as a study of Bourgeois’ working methodology and on purely aesthetic terms, a room in “Alone and Together,” lined with her ruminations on Sainte Sébastienne (here, of course, cast as a woman) is a standout; it includes ten pieces done in the early 90s; in one instance the image includes telling symbols of Bourgeois’s three sons and also her father. The sons appear as eggs in a nest on the martyr’s head; her father is marked by his initials repeatedly stamped in ink. This same section features Bourgeois’ witty (and acrobatic) take on sexual coupling from her portfolio, The Laws of Nature (2003). There is also a an amusing series called Femme (2006) which takes to funny, fabulous lengths a visual play on the artist’s own long hair.
Also completely unforgettable, especially in light of Bourgeois’ well-known personal history, is the series called Do Not Abandon Me (1998-2000). It begins with an elegant miniature sculpture: a small steel chair on a platform encased under a glass dome. The image then evolves into dry points that eventually include, first, just a woman seated on the chair, and then a woman on a chair with a child tethered by its umbilical cord floating above her, and finally to a sculptural version of that image; like the initial sculpture, it is also made of glass and steel. This section includes Bourgeois’ famous bronze sculpture, Arch of Hysteria (1993).
The section called “Fabric of Memory” is quite literally that. Bourgeois kept pieces of clothes and fabric for years that she later cut up to create fabric sculptures, prints on fabric, and collages. On one poignantly tactile wall are pieces from a book of fabric collages, Ode D’oubli [Ode to Forgetting] (2002); its pages are made of linen hand towels taken from her own trousseau and collaged with pieces of her cut-up clothes. As Bourgeois aptly put it, here printed large on the wall, “You can…remember your life by the shape, the weight, the color, the smell of the clothes in your closet.”
“Forces of Nature” explores Bourgeois’ lifelong use of metaphors taken directly from nature, ranging from soft ground etchings of the 1940s, similar to the much later iterations of this theme shown in the atrium, to undulating engravings and aquatints done in the 1990s and 2000s. And finally, the section called “Last Impressions” includes some fruits of Bourgeois’ final years, large-scale prints embellished with handwork in gouache, watercolor and pencil.
Louise Bourgeois. Numbers 5, 8, & 13 of 14 from the installation set À l’Infini. 2008. Soft ground etching, with selective wiping, watercolor, gouache, pencil, colored pencil, and watercolor wash additions. Sheet: 40 × 60″ (101.6 × 152.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.
This last section showcases A l’Infini [To Infinity] (2008), one of the artist’s very last series, which makes use of experimental printmaking and at the same time returns to an early motif, birth and motherhood, represented by floating images of women and babies, entwined or entangled in lines resembling veins or umbilical cords, their color a blood red. Like much of Bourgeois’ work they are, in a sense, the ultimate self-reflecting Rorschach test. Few artists have so powerfully employed graphic means to explore their own psyches.
Featured Image: Louise Bourgeois at the printing press in the lower level of her home/studio on 20th Street, New York, 1995. Photograph by and © Mathias Johansson
Phoebe Hoban has written about culture and the arts for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, ARTnews, and The New York Observer, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, (1998), published as an e-book in May, 2016; Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, (2010) and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open, (2014).