My first impression of Louise Bourgeois was this picture. What I didn’t know about her then was myriad, but I immediately hung the image by my desk at the Columbus Museum of Art. At the time it was more about supporting Robert Mapplethorpe who was having a pretty rough time in Ohio, but I was taken by this old lady in a feathered jacket tickling a roughly-hewn penis sculpture. Later that year I got myself a Desert Storm air fare and headed to Paris, where I got to see her work and learn more about this trailblazing woman. From everything I have since seen and learned, Bourgeois has only grown in my estimation.
From the poster of her 1991 show in Paris.
The first female artist to be the subject of a retrospective at the MoMA, her success came later in life (she was in her 70s when the MoMA show opened). Her work was always deeply personal, yet she made it a point to say very little about herself.
What she did say, however, was clear as a bell. “When you go from painting to this, it means you have an aggressive thought. You want to twist the neck of a person. I became a sculptor because it allowed me to express … what I was embarrassed to express before.”
From her solo show at the Guggenheim in 2008, taken on my crappy phone.
She also was taking the advice of artist Fernand Leger, for whom she worked in Paris before moving to New York in 1938. (Apparently Leger took one look at her paintings and told her she was a sculptor.)
Active to the end, last month she announced she released a limited edition print in support of Freedom to Marry, a nationwide campaign in support of gay marriage. “To make a commitment to love someone forever is a beautiful thing,” she said in a statement. Her own marriage lasted until her husband the art historian Robert Goldwater died in 1973. She is survived by their two sons.
But this isn’t a bio. This is a love letter. I just had to get a few of these facts out of the way to say why. Louise Bourgeois combined age and sexuality and fidelity and anger and turned it into extraordinary work. Her work is profoundly feminine, yet she’s one of those artists whose work has helped eliminate the need for the qualifier “female.” To stand underneath her giant spider, Maman, is to know without knowing why. It is exactly where words fail. Go look at it.