Weaving metaphors

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A revealing portrait of Louise Bourgeois at MoMA


  • “Spider” from 1997, a complex metaphor in metal and mixed media dominates MoMA’s Marron Atrium gallery. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • A group of works from Louise Bourgeois’ 2007series, “The Fragile” opens the exhibition. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Abstract, architectural, and personal, Bourgeois created this sculpture and named it for her son, “Portrait of Jean-Louis.” Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • A selection of works from the series “Lullaby,” rife with connotations and associations. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Bourgeois’ 1984 bronze sculpture, “Spiral Woman,” speaks through elements of the artist’s unique visual language. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • “Self Portrait” 2007, Bourgeois’ drypoint and engraving done on a handkerchief from her trousseau. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Louise Bourgeois, “Swelling (#3),” 2008, Soft ground etching, with watercolor, ink, gouache, and pencil additions, one of the artist’s final works. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • The final gallery of “Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait” at the Museum of Modern Art is both dazzling and uplifting. Photo: Adel Gorgy

Along the edge of a leaf, in a towering etching filled with curvilinear, botanical imagery, Louise Bourgeois penciled a message. “I give you humour, not pity.” There are plenty of other snippets of text, long and short, straightforward or enigmatic in the Museum of Modern Art’s inspiring, encompassing and exhilarating one-woman exhibition, “Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait,” since it focuses, in part on her writing, prints and books. But somehow, this tiny scrawl seems to encapsulate what the work of this complex, beloved artist delivers. The etching, “Ode to Eugénie Grandet,” references the Balzac novel about a woman triumphant despite the constraints of gender and society.

It’s a poignant opener followed by a tour de force. Turning away from the print, one faces “Spider,” from 1997, an enormous cage topped by a gargantuan, spindly-legged arachnoid bronze. The circular cage below the spider is one of a series of 62 “cells” Bourgeois created between 1991 and 2010. Filling the museum’s second-floor atrium, the installation is imposing, constricting and frightening at first glance. On closer inspection, there’s a chair, sections of tapestry, and, hanging from chains, perfume bottles, crystals, a locket with photos, keys and bones tucked inside. It’s a vast and complicated metaphor — as complex and knotty as the artist who created it.

Time after time, across many media, Louise Bourgeois laid her soul bare through her art. In unflinching works and words she communicated her deepest emotions, darkest fears and most daring thoughts, and by doing so, became champion to generations of artists and feminists. In the exhibition we encounter a complex iconography that draws heavily on Bourgeois’ inner world and personal history. Body parts — literal, abstracted, or gender-blending — strange creatures, sheets (here, musical sheets) stained blood red, symbols of fertility and fear are all expressed in Bourgeois’ work, along with touches of humor, but never pity, especially self-pity.

Louise Bourgeois was born in France in 1911 and worked until her death in 2010. She had a long life during a fecund period that spanned world wars and cold wars, and inventions from talking movies to internet tweets. The daughter of a well-off family of tapestry weavers and restorers, Bourgeois studied math and philosophy at the Sorbonne before enrolling in art school. The first apartment she rented in Paris was upstairs from André Breton’s Surrealist stronghold, Galerie Gradiva. In 1938, she met and married an American art historian, Robert Goldwater, and moved to New York.

“She loved New York, and she loved the skyscrapers, so many of her images are of buildings and skyscrapers,” said exhibition organizer Deborah Wye, chief curator emerita of prints at MoMA, and a longtime friend of the artist. “She always saw things in personalized terms, so if she saw a skyscraper, she thought of it as a figure. Or two skyscrapers that were near each other were in a relationship.” A painted bronze of tall building with rows of windows topping skinny legs is “Portrait of Jean-Louis,” her son.

Wye, together with curatorial assistant Sewon Kang, grouped works by thematic chapters, reflecting what Wye called Bourgeois’ “vocabulary of imagery.” They include Architecture Embodied, Abstracted Emotions, Fabric of Memory, Alone and Together, Forces of Nature, and Lasting Impressions and offer the chance to see how ideas were revisited, revised and embellished throughout the course of Bourgeois’ life.

The third floor presentation begins with works on paper filled with spidery figures. The spider was a potent symbol; Bourgeois often stated that it represented her mother, who was a weaver, as well as her protector. The wall text quotes the artist, “My best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and useful as a spider.”

Other recurring imagery includes spirals, reproductive organs, cages, seeds, pods and plants. In the exhibition, they take form in sculptures, drawings, books, prints, etchings, paintings and a delightful group of fiber works made when Bourgeois was in her 80s. Possibly only after her challenging sexual imagery cast in bronze had been accepted and hailed, did she feel comfortable with materials deemed feminine and quaint by an art establishment that devalued the work of many women fiber artists. Whatever the impetus for the works, a human-faced cat printed on a tatted handkerchief (“Self Portrait”) and a series of minimalist sewn, quilted and printed compositions are eye-openers.

The exhibition ends with a crowning glory. “In the last room there’s a very moving series. It’s almost completely abstract, and she did that probably when she was 96, and she died when she was 98. It starts with the printed elements, and then she just really goes wild with gouache and with watercolor and pencil.... It’s just a sort of primordial, cellular world,” said Wye, adding, “I do think in that last room there’s a great spirituality going on.”

At the center of the gallery is a circle of gold, “Arch of Hysteria,” a life-sized figural sculpture — writhing and agonized, but soaring, transcendent and dazzling.

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