For such a tiny woman – she stands barely 5ft tall – Louise Bourgeois is a formidable presence. And, at 96, she still continues to work. Except on Sundays. But, more on that later. Bourgeois (born on Christmas Day in 1911) grew up in France, the middle child of parents who ran a tapestry restoration business. Surrounded by textiles and fabric and women busily sewing and weaving, she demonstrated artistic skill at an early age and was often called upon to draw in missing portions of a tapestry so it could be repaired. Her mother even had to embroider fig leaves over male genitalia occasionally to make certain tapestries more palatable to some of the workshop’s upper-crust clientele. While all of this may sound rather idyllic, there was trouble in paradise. In 1982, just before her first major retrospective exhibition was due to open at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Bourgeois made the startling revelation – in an illustrated autobiographical text called Child Abuse published in the December 1982 issue of Artforum – that her childhood governess had been her father’s mistress for more than ten years. They conducted their affair in the home and on family trips, all under the watchful, and impressionable, eye of young Louise, who was often used by her mother to report on their activities. She felt betrayed by those she trusted and this pain made an indelible impact.
Plumbing the depths of her painful childhood memories, Bourgeois exorcised her demons and used her autobiography to create some of the most intensely powerful art of our time. Witness Maman, the towering steel spider sculpture that the public first came to know in 1999 in the Turbine Hall at the newly opened Tate Modern. While the spider motif appeared in Bourgeois’ work in the 1940s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that she used it to create spectacular bronze and steel installations of monumental proportions. Rather than being threatening or terrifying, her spider is a symbol of benevolence and protection. She equates its work as a restorer and weaver with her mother and with the busy hands of the women in the tapestry workshop, saying, ‘I come from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer.’
However, Bourgeois’ memories have also manifested themselves in work with a decidedly macabre subtext. In her seminal 1974 work Destruction of the Father, she imagines a dinner at which her family, tiring of her father’s boasts about his success, dismember and cannibalise him. Rather than being an active participant in this massacre, Bourgeois places herself, and the viewer, as spectators observing the drama, as if in a theatre.
A performance that accompanied Confrontation, a work from this same period, reveals the artist’s mischievous side. While the work itself continued the rather gruesome narrative established in Destruction of the Father – with a panoply of indeterminate latex objects that could symbolise body parts laid out on a platform resembling a hospital stretcher – the performance imbued it with a dose of humour. When the work debuted at New York’s Hamilton Gallery in 1978, the artist staged a performance that she called A Banquet/A Fashion Show of Body Parts. A parade of art world luminaries walked a makeshift runway to a punk music soundtrack, outfitted in costumes with bulbous protuberances, all designed by Bourgeois. Transforming the usually serious academics into outlandish figures was part of the fun. Of this, Bourgeois says, ‘In the 1960s and 1970s, my sculptures could be read as undulating landscapes as well as ‘bodyscapes’. The sculptures were a second skin that I wanted to model. Clothes are as much about what you want to hide of the body as what you want to expose. This is a form of communication. Body language is very important to me and it is true that there is beauty in distortion.’
Bourgeois’ notions about the nature of beauty and the bodily distortions she created with her costumes have found reverberations in contemporary fashion. Rei Kawakubo’s iconic spring/summer 1997 collection for Comme des Garçons, entitled ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’, consisted of garments plumped and padded in unusual places with goosedown, which gave the runway models grotesquely beautiful shapes. Although Kawakubo has said that the silhouettes of people wearing rucksacks, fanny packs and baby carriers were what inspired her, one can assume that the designer, who is known to have a strong interest in contemporary art, is familiar with Bourgeois’ work. While many of the ‘Body Meets Dress’ pieces ended up in museum collections because they were deemed to be more like artworks than wearable clothes, a museum patron turned up in one of the outfits at the recent opening of Louise Bourgeois’ retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim. Seeing her, dressed in Kawakubo’s bumps and bulges and juxtaposed with Bourgeois’ voluptuous forms, was a fitting tribute to two artists who have challenged conventions of beauty.
While Bourgeois often uses fabrics, textiles and her own clothes in her work, she has never been tempted to design clothes. Dressed as a child in the latest looks from Coco Chanel and Paul Poiret, she has given many of her old clothes pride of place in her work, notably her Cell installations from the 1990s. Of these, she has said, ‘You can remember your life by the shape, weight, colour and smell of those clothes.’ She famously turned up for her 1982 sitting with Robert Mapplethorpe wearing a monkey-fur coat (and carrying her 1968 sculpture, Fillette, essentially a 2ft-long phallus) and has said that the coat could make her feel like a bear – powerful and threatening. Helmut Lang, with whom Bourgeois has become great friends, used this portrait for one of his advertising campaigns and commissioned a photograph of Bourgeois by Bruce Weber for another. ‘It was Ingrid Sischy [then editor of Interview] who introduced me to Helmut. We hit it off instantly. He was a runaway, like me. He would send me beautiful clothes,’tells Bourgeois. For his part, Lang says,‘Louise has for me a European elegance and the charismatic energy of a woman who has defined her life as an artist, mother and lover and emerged stronger each time. Whenever I see her I feel completely enriched, touched, seduced and impressed by her ability to combine continuity, perfection and anarchy as one emotion. I carry that feeling of her with me as long as I can every time I see her.’
The two have collaborated several times since meeting. In 1998, Lang selected Bourgeois and artist Jenny Holzer to show their work alongside his in a three-person exhibition at Vienna’s Kunsthalle, recognising that all share a common interest in the investigation of the human body and the obsessions and neuroses that constitute identity and determine relationships. In addition to using photographs of Bourgeois in his ads, Lang’s model wore a reproduction of a silver choker Bourgeois designed in 1948 in his 2003 spring/summer collection fashion shows, while a soundtrack of Bourgeois singing French songs played. They also worked together on designs for T-shirts and scarves. Lang, who now works almost exclusively as an artist since he sold his label to Prada in 2004, hasn’t seen Bourgeois as regularly recently due to a self-imposed isolation while working on his art. He was reluctant to show it to her until he felt it was good enough. Now finished, Lang’s new work (featured in this issue), including an installation of sculptural pieces called Alles Gleich Schwer (or Everything Has Equal Weight) at the Kestnergesellschaft gallery in Hanover, has attracted Bourgeois’ attention.
That Bourgeois is deeply interested in contemporary culture should come as no surprise. It is doubtless one of the things that keeps her young. She encourages artists like Roni Horn, whose Library of Water project in Iceland she supported through art patron Artangel, and she’s currently working with architect Peter Zumthor on a commission in Vardø, Norway. When asked what draws her to particular artists, she says that, as well as their work, it’s that they are, like her, lonely runners and independent thinkers.
The other thing that keeps Bourgeois young is that she continues to work » every day except Sunday. She’s decidedly unsentimental about her earlier work, asserting, ‘I’m exclusively interested in the piece I’m doing at the moment and nothing else.’ She doesn’t make sculpture as much these days, but makes lots of drawings and prints, some with collaged elements, like a work titled Don’t Swallow Me that incorporates one of her old petticoats, flattened from the top down so that the waist looks like a void or hole. The collage was included in the Guggenheim show and was completed just a week before it opened in June.
Despite her strong work ethic, Bourgeois believes in taking one day off. But not working on Sundays gave her the blues, she says, and she began to invite friends over. This is how her now-legendary Sunday salons began. They are for visual artists, musicians, poets, singers, dancers and curators, and have turned into something of an open call for young artists to present their work. Bourgeois seems a little thrilled by the fact that Faye Dunaway came to a salon this summer. She describes the afternoons that have become an important part of her life: ‘We’ve had Guillermo Kuitca, Nan Goldin and Jonas Mekas, together with many younger artists. The younger artists are special. Some want an endorsement of their work, others think I can help them get a gallery, or they want me to hire them as an assistant. Many are isolated after school. There seems to be a lot of pressure to make it [in the art world]. The quality of the afternoons depends entirely on the group dynamic, sometimes aided with alcohol. [Bourgeois often serves wine or Campari.] We’ve had tears, fights and people being ejected.’ In fact, a young artist once referred to the Sunday afternoons at Bourgeois’ home as visiting the ‘smackdown shack’. Being the feisty, opinionated woman she is, Bourgeois seems to take a demonic pleasure in this moniker. While many of us would envy the roster of guests appearing at the salons over the years, Bourgeois has her own ideas of guests she would invite to an imaginary ‘dream’ dinner party. Without hesitating, she names Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan and Donald Winnicott, all legendary psychoanalysts, as well as Francis Bacon, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and Richard Serra, three artists she admires.
As Bourgeois doggedly continues to make art, she never repeats herself but continues to mine her memories and give visual form to her life, to her passions, her regrets and her fears. Recognising the duality that is present in much of her work – back to the spider, at once benevolent and deadly – Bourgeois psychoanalyses herself: ‘I’m a person torn apart by conflicting impulses. I want things I know are not good for me. I say things that I shouldn’t say and I do things that I shouldn’t do. There is violence. I break things and then there is guilt and regret. The duality is in the work. There is an ambivalence to everything.’