Poet with a Needle

At 94, Louise Bourgeois still summons poignant imagery from deep within herself

My favorite image of Louise Bourgeois is a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe. Tucked neatly under the artist's right arm is what at first glance might be mistaken for a huge loaf of French bread. A closer look confirms that the object is one of Bourgeois' more brazenly phallic sculptures, and the sly, mischievous smile on her face makes it clear that she's perfectly aware of what she's carrying.

Bourgeois had every right to look pleased with herself. The photo was taken in 1982, when she was 71 and the subject of a retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art -- the first female artist, in fact, to get a MoMA retrospective. A reproduction of the Mapplethorpe shot is included in the exceptional little catalog for "Louise Bourgeois: Stitches in Time,"now at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami.

The catalog also includes a transcript from a brief 1993 interview Nigel Finch filmed but never used in a documentary he made on Bourgeois. In it, she explains that she took the sculpture to the Mapplethorpe shoot in an attempt to ease her nervousness about being photographed: "I don't think much of my looks. I am not an actress. I am not what I look like. I am what I do. I am my work... I did take a piece of mine because the piece is more myself than the person." She also reveals that what she's wearing in the picture is another comforting item -- a beloved coat made of monkey fur: "I love monkey fur."

Bourgeois grew up surrounded by fabric; her family was in the business of restoring tapestries and furniture.
Christopher Burke
Bourgeois grew up surrounded by fabric; her family was in the business of restoring tapestries and furniture.
Cheim Read

The MoCA exhibition, which had its first run in 2003 at Dublin's Irish Museum of Modern Art, was curated by Frances Morris of the Tate Modern and Brenda McParland of the Irish Museum. They've done an outstanding job of making sense of a career that's so long and varied. Bourgeois is now 94 and still producing work that would be the envy of artists half her age.

In her catalog essay, Morris insists that "Stitches in Time" isn't really a retrospective. And it certainly isn't a retrospective in the sense that, say, the just-ended Louise Nevelson exhibition at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood was. Even so, that essay and the accompanying photos do much to give an overview of Bourgeois and her work.

Like the Russian-born Nevelson, Bourgeois was born abroad (in Paris, on Christmas Day, 1910), moved to the United States, and built her reputation slowly over the course of decades. And while the two Louises couldn't be more different in style and temperament, both were beneficiaries of American feminism and built amazing bodies of work.

Bourgeois' work, however, is a far cry from Nevelson's coolly austere constructions. Bourgeois is the artistic equivalent of a confessional poet, drawing on her personal history and often focusing on the messiness of human life. But it wasn't until she went public with some revelations about her childhood in a 1982 Artforum magazine project that the full extent of the messiness became clear.

The artist combined old photographs of her family with a scathing text that details how her father hired a young Englishwoman as a governess for his children, then openly had a sexual relationship with her for the next decade. "There are rules of the game," Bourgeois wrote. "You cannot have people breaking them right and left. In a family a minimum of conformity is expected." She titled the piece Child Abuse.

Hence, Bourgeois' continuing preoccupation with the dynamics of family dysfunction. In a 1974 installation called The Destruction of the Father (included in the catalog but not in the MoCA exhibition), she vented her anger at her father's pompousness by concocting a little scenario in which children dismember and consume their father at the dinner table.

The show includes a few sets of lithographs, etchings, and engravings, but it's Bourgeois' recent works in fabric that are her most fascinating explorations. The artist grew up literally surrounded by fabric -- the family business was restoring antique tapestries and furniture -- and she has taken to sewing uncannily lifelike human heads and anatomically correct figures of various sizes.

Some of them, like Arch of Hysteria, a small piece that hangs at the entrance to the exhibition, are so crudely stitched together that they summon up the handiwork of Dr. Frankenstein. Sometimes Bourgeois displays the figures in vitrines, as in the ten elements that make up Oedipus (a dysfunctional family story if ever there was one), including a miniature sphinx, a copulating couple, a nursing mother, and an almost lifesized head of the title character with metal spikes driven into his eyes.

Violence against women gets a graphic and disturbing treatment in the 2002 piece Femme Couteau. Inside a vitrine about the size of an average home aquarium rests a headless, armless female form, with one leg amputated at the knee and a huge knife sprouting from between the breasts. There is even the suggestion that the woman might be in the early stages of pregnancy.

Some untitled constructions feature figures that look as if they've been flayed. And a pair of 1996 pieces, also untitled, are sort of modified mobiles that eliminate the human form almost entirely. In one, a misshapen orange garment with what appears to be a tail hangs on one side, while on the other side hangs a coiled metal form of unidentifiable origin. The second mobile is even more unnerving. It features eight items of female attire, including lingerie, suspended from "hangers" that are really just large bones.

Does Bourgeois set out to shock and scandalize? Maybe sometimes. I think it's more to the point to say that she draws her imagery from deep within herself, perhaps even from her subconscious. She's certainly no stranger to surrealism.

And although she has written extensively about her work, she's also wary of artists who try to explain too much about what they've done. The catalog includes an excerpt from a piece she wrote for Design Quarterly in the 1950s: "An artist's words are always to be taken cautiously. The finished work is often a stranger to, and sometimes very much at odds with, what the artist felt or wished to express when he began." Everything in "Stitches in Time" suggests that these words are every bit as relevant as when Bourgeois wrote them more than half a century ago.

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