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Louise Bourgeois.

THE LOUISE BOURGEOIS RETROSPECTIVE at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York--an exhibition that premiered last year at Tate Modern in London--was a mammoth affair with some 150 works, a hundred of them large sculptures. The show began with the early "Femme Maison" (Woman House) series of the mid-1940s, opening on a modest scale that nevertheless reminded one of Bourgeois's mythic status in art history. These quirky paintings depict different types of houses set upon female bodies--pedimented facade, clapboard colonial, gambrel barn, apartment tower--in a manner recalling the birdcage hats placed on window-display mannequins by several of the artist's friends and acquaintances for the International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris in 1938. The affiliation between Bourgeois's corpus and the abrupt discontinuities of the Exquisite Corpse, that consequential pastime of Andre Breton and others, underscores her Surrealist credentials--although she has often bridled at the inescapable connection. (The "Femme Maison" pieces also possess a droll shyness that recalls James Thurber's woman-fearing cartoons as well as those of proximate date by William Steig.)

Indeed, the amazing catalogue to this huge retrospective--a comprehensive ABC of preferred persons, places, things, and themes from the artist's life and career (edited by Tate Modern's Frances Morris)--is a lexicon rich in references to the period just before the Second World War. These range from the sentimental--for example, the entry on Robert Goldwater, the artist's late husband, with whom she came to the United States in 1938--to the factual, such as the entry detailing the artist's education at six well-known Paris art schools of the day and her further studies with Marcel Gromaire, Andre Lhote, and Fernand Leger (rather an excess of period pedagogy, if you ask me).

Yet this powerful contextualization unfortunately only underscores the ways in which this retrospective was, for reasons incidental to either work or installation, quite dispiriting. Although photographs of the vibrant woman who ran away with Goldwater abounded, for instance, there was a notable absence of corresponding work from that period. Surely, there must be some prewar French material still out there, since this is the loam from which has grown so bounteous a harvest. The avowedly decorative strain in Bourgeois's practice would have been provocatively underscored in the last gasp of Arts Deco typified by Paris Trente-Sept taste, a connection corroborated by her early studies with Paul Colin, the famed poster designer for Josephine Baker and La Revue Negre. But for want of example, one simply wondered what Bourgeois's Paris Trente-Sept material really looks like.

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What we did see is that during the Eisenhower ice age, vulnerable, spindly structures emerged both in Bourgeois's graphics--as in the suite of engravings titled He Disappeared into Complete Silence, 1947--and in the long series of sculptures called "Personages," 1946-54. The latter began as wooden works whose elements were layered atop one another and skewered by a vertical spindle, thus allowing them a certain rotary freedom; some are winged, others pendulous. (Most of the "Personages" have now been cast in bronze, as was planned from the outset, Bourgeois's initial desire to do so having been back-burnered back at the ouset owing to foundry costs far in excess of the artist's then meager purse). For Bourgeois, the "Personages" are--they do not just represent--real persons encountered as if in conversation with one another. Responding to a query that likened their installation in groups to a cocktail party or vernissage, she once replied, "Oh yes. They turn around on their bases. They can look all around the room but usually they look at each other." Though most "Personages" are untitled, some are given associative names; specific initials identify others, taggings that highlight the artist's totemic anthropomorphism and hyperpersonal identification with her art.

The "Personages" correspond to the years of young motherhood (there would be three sons) when Bourgeois juggled several roles--artist, mother, and saloniste. In her latter guise, she received a set of New York Intellectuals quite different, in their seersucker, white-shoe restraint, from the cafeteria dialecticians usually conjured by the term. Bourgeois shared domestic responsibilities with her wry art-historian husband, the editor of the Magazine of Art, a progressive journal but one overshadowed by the bellicose Partisan Review. (Full disclosure: I met Goldwater at Queens College in 1953 when I was briefly his student.)

The Bourgeois-Goldwater set admitted many notables: Meyer Shapiro, the great art historian; Alfred H. Barr, chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art, whose wire-rimmed "repressed sexuality" Bourgeois found curiously arousing (see the catalogue entry "Barr, Alfred H."); Marcel Duchamp; and several others from the Surrealist circles that Bourgeois frequented in her salad days, including the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who swans about in the extensive psychoanalytic exegeses to which the artist's work so comfortably lends itself. There were also Front populaire emigres, such as Leger and the Utopian idealist Amedee Ozenfant. (Curiously, the catalogue's abecedarium makes no mention of the artist's account of being called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee during this cold-war period, which must have been a traumatic event, placing her in danger of deportation.)

Moving up the Frank Lloyd Wright ramp at the Guggenheim, one went past chapels and chambers abrim with Bourgeois's labial, knifelike "Femme Couteau" (Knife Woman) series, the "Lairs," and the "Labyrinths," all begun in the '60s. When we look back to such works, the congruency of Postminimalist and feminist stylistics grows ever more apparent: eccentric substances; gender-coded methods of sewing, skeining, and knitting; softness; theatricalization of private history; autobiographical narration. And there, at the center of this vast web of art and politics, Louise Bourgeois sat patiently, omni-eyed, a wary Spider Mother, her silken cocoon protecting her eggs--the new generation of artists who had turned to her for sanction and license.

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Her "Cells," 1991-2008, families of "Spiders," 1994-2003, and juju dolls made of cloth and tapestry crowned the artist's recent years here. The sewn material especially incarnates the artist's Elektra-like hatred of a tyrannical father. (Bourgeois, an Alice-in-Wonderland child born to a house of tapestry restorers and antiques dealers, despised her paterfamilias for subverting the rightful role of her compliant mother, placing the children's governess and his mistress as head of household. Empathy for Clytemnestra and Gertrude still echo in these sewn fetishes.) But the retrospective concluded specifically with the "Cells," 1991-2008, that coven of battered wooden doors, as well as other large, densely filled enclosures, some surrounded by metal screening. These intimidating sprawls recall the vitrines of Joseph Beuys (as much the shaman as Bourgeois) in which, at times, the German artist displayed esoteric, vaguely repulsive organic tablescapes. Beuys's cryptic "what goes where and next to what" vitrines parallel the alarming games of taste found in the "Cells": Just where should the marble houses go, the body parts, the mechanical devices, the genital referents, nests, sphinxes, spiders, dolls, garments, furniture, mirrors--in short, where to place the varied players in the Bourgeois repertory theater? All this fabulism is part and parcel of the Bourgeois myth--intimate chatter now so overgrown as to obscure the art. But in our times, notoriety is also a grand achievement. So it will be ages before the artist's gripping romance is leached away from the art to allow a clear assessment through born-again, virgin eyes.

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My own trust in the work might not have collapsed so suddenly had the artist resisted her incrementally growing taste for bombast. While the various elements of her oeuvre are convincing as autonomous pieces, as floor shows of the House of Atreus they become Grand Guignol. This was ratified by a documentary shown during the run of the retrospective: La Riviere Gentille (The Gentle River), completed in 2007, the third in a trilogy devoted to the artist by Brigitte Cornand. The film was shot in the artist's Chelsea home over the past five years--that is, between her ninety-second and ninety-sixth year--and is meant to provide "an intimate picture of Bourgeois, which underscores the ongoing role of memory in her art," as the invitation to the screening reads. Well, perhaps. How dismaying to hear, for example, the oh-so-delighted applause that greets the artist's febrile recall of French nursery tunes. Equally painful is the reading aloud of Bourgeois's oddly poetic and intensely visual notebooks and agendas, her echolalia-like lists used as prod to memory. The clumsy result is a record of art-world personalities both great and small seen humoring a very old and mythically powerful lady who remains her own best celebrity endorsement--provided the myth is not sabotaged, which this film does in spades, though hardly with that intent in mind.

Let it be said that this disturbing shadow in no way intrudes upon that lioness's share of Bourgeois's work created up to the past decade, which has been immeasurably potent for a succession of cadet generations. It is merely otiose to float anew names such as Eva Hesse, Lynda Benglis, or Francesco Clemente. Still, it is with peculiar fascination that one reads the catalogue entry titled "Abstraction: L'Esprit geometrique," by Robert Storr (a preeminent champion of the artist who also makes a cameo appearance as a reader in the revelatory film), which compares Bourgeois's late work to that of Willem de Kooning, whose last works were shadowed by Alzheimer's disease, a dementia that Storr was the first to reveal to the larger public. "Bourgeois," he writes, "has not suffered such an inexorably debilitating illness, but if memory is assumed to be both the source of someone's creative drive and their subject, what is left when that memory gradually fades or deserts them?" As Storr notes, it is the increased production of drawings, prints, and clothing pieces that seems to have supplanted the earlier practice--"the last two involving the collaboration of assistants, who work directly with her at home."

This is far from sufficient information to quell unease. Rather, it serves as incitement. The retrospective as a whole suggested that the "Cells," particularly, are answering a technological scale that betrays the feminist/Postminimalist nexus that was once so inspirational. Of course, the artist has employed professional assistance--fabricators, riggers, jobbers of all stamp--for decades now. In this she is as one with a myriad of artists. Yet standard studio practice in this case (generating her huge doors, immense metal enclosures, giant invented machines, and Rodinesque blocks of marble) becomes a kind of enormous production-oriented apparatus that may have transformed the scale of the artist's work from intimacy to publicity.

But niceties of historiography and connoisseurship count for less as we draw further away from the subject at hand. Token nods may remain favoring Cubism, or Neo-classicism, or Guernica when speaking of Picasso, but it is also true that now all is more or less good, clear sailing, even for the once-reviled Late Works. Does anyone, even so shortly after the death of de Kooning, still cavil over the relative rankings of his successive periods? Even experts disagree. After a moment, once-burning distinctions dissipate, and the market--which is what remains along with the art--welcomes this lowering of the guard. The further away you get, the more of a piece it all becomes. This, too, will be Bourgeois's lot (as it will be for all of us) when the shuffling off of mortal coils can no longer be deferred.

"Louise Bourgeois" was curated by Frances Morris of Tate Modern, Jonas Storsve of Centre Pompidou, and Marie-Laure Bernadac. The New York presentation was organized by Nancy Spector of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

ROBERT PINCUS-WITTEN IS A CONTRIBUTING EDITOR OF ARTFORUM.

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SOLOMON R. GUGGENHEIM

MUSEUM, NEW YORK

Robert Pincus-Witten
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Author:Guggenheim, Solomon R.; Pincus-Witten, Robert
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2008
Words:1917
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