Louise Bourgeois

Guggenheim Museum, June 27 – September 28, 2008

“No building is more organic than this inverse digestive tract,” Robert Smithson wrote of the Guggenheim Museum in 1966. “The ambulatories are metaphorically intestines. It is a concrete stomach.” Smithson meant this diagnosis to sound grave—probably deadly—and he may have been willing to risk hyperbole to get his point across. No doubt Frank Lloyd Wright built with an organic metaphor in mind, but this metaphor was not as specific as Smithson would have it, nor were Wright’s results so visceral.

Louise Bourgeois, “Cumul I” 1968. White marble. 51 × 127 × 122 cm. AM 1976-933. © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource

It’s too bad, really. The building Smithson imagines would have been, in spirit at least, the perfect place for a Louise Bourgeois retrospective. In the sixty years covered by the current exhibition, Bourgeois has let body parts and building parts stand in for each other, mix together, and interact in unsettling and intimate ways. She’s made sculptures and installations that frame the creation and viewing of art as forms of cannibalism. She’s built small Lairs out of lumpy, scatological latex and plaster, some of which suggest the ancient ziggurats that Wright cleaned up, turned on their head, and made too-monolithic (for the truly ideal Bourgeois venue, anyway) in building the Guggenheim. She hasn’t made a concrete stomach, but that image lends itself to the creepy fragmentation and immobility of her hybrid- and almost-organs.

In her 97 years, Bourgeois has participated in at least four or five lifetimes’ worth of art history. As a young woman in Paris she studied first with one of Rodin’s assistants and then with Fernand Léger. She had important early encounters with Brancusi, Giacometti, and Bacon. She knew the Surrealists in Paris before the war and New York during it, and they irritated her in both places. She married one of the first art historians to write about the art of his own time, Robert Goldwater. After she moved with him to New York she befriended Le Corbusier, Robert Motherwell, and Alfred Barr, who bought one of her sculptures for MoMA in 1951. The high-modern list goes on, but so does the postmodern one. In the late 1960s—when Bourgeois was in her fifties—her use of latex and plaster prompted Lucy Lippard to propose her as a progenitor to young postminimalists like Bruce Nauman an Eva Hesse. In the feminist seventies the gendered subtext of her work came out in the open through, among other things, allegorical installations and performances masquerading as fashion shows. The “Cells,” the room-sized enclosures she began making in the late 1980s, are theatrical in a way that is simultaneously subdued and baroque, and are entirely of their moment.

The work is various, then. It’s also deliberate and knowledgeable. It would be tedious to parse that catalog of artistic interactions into a system of influences and lineages, but it does matter that Bourgeois makes confident use of her intellectual resources, art-historical and otherwise. She speaks frequently about working out of her emotions—and on this point she is has been abundantly clear about why and how she does so—but she’s not an expressionist, at least in any easy I-feel-it-so-you-can-feel-it-too sort of way. She can be a fearfully reasonable, at times even withholding, sculptor.

Take her earliest sculptures, which she began during the mid-1940s, collectively called "Personages." Constructed out wood and bronze that she carved, pinned, nailed, balanced, painted, and occasionally adorned, they were conceived as the embodiments of people she knew or had known, loved or despised. They stand erect and quasi-architectural; most are in the vicinity of five-to-six feet, though there are smaller ones with titles identifying them as children. These "Personages" don’t seem to have personalities so much as personal histories: they’ve undergone very distinct sculptural processes in assuming their roughly identical postures, an interaction between material, subject, and maker that, as Bourgeois’s titles indicate ("Persistent Antagonism" is a good example), could be rather explosive. And when she first exhibited these works at a 12th Street gallery in 1949, she drilled into the gallery floor and inserted the sharp ends of the sculptures so that the Personages appeared almost to have been nailed in. They assumed their positions vengefully, but in a constrained and decidedly intellectual order: in one of the first environmentally-conceived installations, Bourgeois arranged the sculptures so that their collective footprint created a “readable graph” based on Euclidean geometry—a comfortingly “closed system” in which “parallels never touch” and “relations can be anticipated and are eternal” (from “Interview with Susie Bloch,” Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father, Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Essays 1932-1997, mit Press, 1998).

The Guggenheim installation recalls that exhibition with a group of "Personages" in the side gallery near the bottom of the ramp. Here, though, the sculptures are held up by neutralizing stainless steel plates, and roped off so visitors can’t confront them directly. None of this is especially surprising. It is, however, the first instance of a recurrent problem throughout the exhibition, the Guggenheim’s tendency to make sculpture seem like it is on a proscenium. Bourgeois’s work is theatrical, but very often it has its own built-in staging mechanisms, which the museum frequently overwhelms.

Some of the works that come off best in the retrospective, which is organized chronologically, are from the years that followed the "Personages." At this point Bourgeois moved away from treating the body as an architectural vertical, and instead started making table-top or floor pieces—first in wood, then in marble, latex, and bronze—in which indeterminate body parts multiply like plants or cluster-like clouds. She also stopped producing totemic stand-ins for individuals and began working on the relations between groups, claiming that the title of a 1955 wood sculpture—"One and Others"—captured the emotional content of all her work. She gave away surprisingly little in saying so, though, as the sculpture leaves open the question of which is the "One." What is clear is that the group turns inwards: it consists of about thirty wood forms, each screwed into a solid base. Relatively diminutive kernel-like pieces occupy its middle, while larger, elongated teardrops create a loose but still insulating circle around them. This self-sufficient quality runs through a lot of her work from the fifties and sixties, and it grows ever more interesting as the sculptures’ elements become increasingly sexual. The series of "Cumuls," Bourgeois has said, draws its name from the forms’ resemblance to cumulus clouds – but despite the tissuey softness of the marble "Cumul I," the forms’ effects come primarily from being almost like breasts, nipples, penis heads, bottoms, and all our other sensitive parts. They’re ambiguous and frequently beautiful enough to invite a charged and enjoyable game of association, but—with bodily parts that are not quite like the ones we have or the ones we want to touch, and yet almost are—they can also be distancing. They seem to hold an unspeakably complex psychological situation up and look at it in a way that is simultaneously definite, empirical, impossibly clear-eyed and yet still finally undefinable.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, Bourgeois became increasingly forthcoming about the narrative she was working with. In 1974, she made an installation she called The Destruction of the Father. Bulbous, latex "Cumul"-like forms sit surround a table, shrouded in velvet. A garish red light shines on the scene, highlighting paternal chunks of flesh waiting to be devoured. Cast in latex from hunks of meat Bourgeois acquired at the 10th Avenue meat market, their ugliness would almost be vengeance enough even if the next stage in their narrative weren’t cannibalization. For me, though, the intense emotions the installation should summon don’t emerge. For one thing, this work suffers the most from the Guggenheim’s proscenium problem: punched into the continuous white wall, it is too reduced to devour. But I also find Bourgeois’s later narrative mode, as expressed through her titles and other texts, heavily significant found objects, and so on, somewhat frustrating. Despite the explicitness of these elements, there are some ambiguities—but these seem less generous than earlier ambiguities, which came across as vaguely threatening reminders that we must not take the explicit content of the work to be its totality or explanation.

This narrative quality works the best in Bourgeois’s latest large-scale series, begun in 1989. These “Cells” are quasi-architectural spaces built out of old doors, fences, or cages and then elegantly filled with objects of all sorts: bedroom furniture, old clothes, an architectural model of Bourgeois’s childhood home threatened by a guillotine, sculptures of fragmented hands, wonderfully gigantic balls made of solid wood. In some cases, she forces us to walk through short, tight spirals to view these interiors; in others, we must piece together partial views caught through mirrors, windows, and other openings. The narrative aspects of these works—whether they’re drawn from Bourgeois’s personal history or her readings of Freud—are often blatant and somewhat controlling. That works well, though, with the kind of press-and-release ways in which these works also control our physical act of viewing them.

As a young woman in Paris, before she began studying art formally, Bourgeois wrote her Baccalauréat thesis on Kant and Pascal. Going through the exhibition, my mind truncated one of the latter’s more famous phrases and proceeded to trip over it repeatedly. The heart has reasons, I could not stop thinking. And since they’re reasons, it’s extremely odd that the mind cannot understand them. At times Bourgeois is very, very good at mining that strangeness.

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Anne Byrd

Anne Byrd is a visual artist based in Houston, TX.