Louise Bourgeois was a sculptor, painter, and printmaker, but was mostly known for her installations made of wood, marble, bronze, rubber, glass, and clothing. Her most signature image was that of a giant spider, with six made of bronze and named ‘Maman’ after her mother. Making art for more than sixty years, she had a tremendous influence on many younger artists, especially female artists.
Born in Paris, Bourgeois studied mathematics and geometry at the Sorbonne. She studied at the Art Students League after she moved to New York in 1938, having married American art historian Robert Goldwater. Her experiences as a daughter, wife, and mother of three sons were important sources for her work. Her life and her art were essentially one and the same. While she was reluctant to call herself a feminist artist, much of her work clearly spoke to women’s experiences.
Bourgeois began as an engraver and painter. By the 1940s she turned her attention to sculptural work, for which she is now recognized as a 20th century leader. Her early sculpture was composed of groupings of abstract and organic shapes, often carved from wood. She would later call these works her “Personages” series, most likely influenced by her husband’s work in tribal art. Her works in 1946-1947 have domesticity as its subject matter. In 1946, she studied printmaking where she created her series: “He Disappeared into Complete Silence” 1946-1947. In these prints and in her “Femme Maison” (Woman House) paintings 1945-1947 she used architectural imagery to highlight the alienation of women.
Bourgeois made prints for some six decades, and they echoed the major themes and motifs of abstraction, architecture, and memory that were found in her sculptures and installations.
Recognition in the art world came late. Bourgeois talked about the New York art world of the late 1930s into the 1950s and how the assigned social roles of gender made things impossible for her as an artist. Her domestic subjects were not considered to be major art. Museum trustees and modern art dealers, according to her, bought and sold the “important” artistic production of men. And that left her out. In 1949, her first show of totemic wood sculptures was largely ignored. This lack of recognition continued. The unexpected death in 1951 of her domineering father, who had a decade-long affair with Bourgeois’s English tutor, only six years her senior, plunged her into a depression. She stopped making art altogether from 1955 to 1960.
Her sculptures became overtly feminist and more sexually explicit in the late 1960s, building to “The Destruction of the Father,” a large-scale tableau completed in 1974, a year after her husband’s death. It was based on a revenge fantasy against an overbearing father on the part of the mother and children who murder and cannibalize him.
It wasn’t until 1982 – when she was seventy years old – that Bourgeois had her first retrospective, given to her by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Her 1987 drawing “Untitled (Ste. Sebastienne)” is a metaphorical self-portrait where Sebastian is turned into a woman about to be pierced by phallic arrows. This confirmed the idea of Bourgeois as a long-suffering female artist as she appropriated the image of the saint shot through with arrows to tell her own story.
Her early 1990s “Cell” installations consisted of frameworks of old doors, beds, toy trains, surrealistic ornaments, and her own garments of discarded dresses, slips, and nightwear. She was one of the first artists to turn stockings and pantyhose into sculptures and assemblages. She repurposed these fabrics and everyday objects into haunting biomorphic sculptures to reveal her own personal sense of trauma, stemming from the sadness of her childhood, caused by her father’s infidelity to her loving and affectionate mother, who was an invalid.
In the late 1990s, she began using the spider as a central image in her art. “The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver – So spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.” She alluded to weaving and her family’s tapestry business in these “Cell” installations and in her fabric sculptures. Her 1997 sculptural installation featured her signature image: the “Spider.” A nearly 15-foot tall steel spider straddles a circular steel-mesh cage. The spider has deposited her glass eggs into a basket, poised above a tapestry-covered chair. This spider-cage sculpture had its origins in Surrealism as the cage is part shelter and part prison. In 1999, she made another similar sculpture only this time it was of a 30-foot spider.
In 1998, Bourgeois produced a series of holograms in her “Untitled (Hologram Suite).” She considered this to be a single work although it contained eight individual glass holograms, which included lovers, chairs, a bell jar and enclosures – all elements which occurred in many of her installations. This work was recently acquired by Dia as part of its permanent collection.
In 2002, Bourgeois produced a book of fabric collages, “Ode a l’Oubli” (Ode to Forgetfulness), in which she sewed scraps from her 1938 trousseau onto linen hand towels. Between 2002 and 2008 Bourgeois made sewn-fabric works, fabric drawings, large scale fabric sculptures, and patchwork appliqué pieces with abstraction dominating. These powerful late works were variations on recurrent motifs of a spiral and a web, with the web lines spreading out of the work’s rectangular frame.
Bourgeois was the second woman to represent America as a solo artist since 1990 at the 1993 Venice Biennale. She has had retrospectives at New York’s MoMA in 1982 and at the Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Her work is in the permanent collections of countless museums such as New York’s Dia:Beacon, Tate Modern, Centre Georges Pompidou, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Kunstverein in Frankfurt.