by Emily R. Pellerin
January 15, 2018
In the middle of the Museum of Modern Art’s second floor Marron Atrium stands one of Louise Bourgeois’s spider sculptures. At 17 feet tall, its six legs bow over a circular chain-link cage that guards a chair inside, draped imperfectly in beige, tattered fragments of fabric. The door of the cage is ajar. A security guard ushers a museum visitor out from under the spider’s spindly appendages and away from the door. The chair is not for sitting.
There are three hundred works on view in Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, which features not only the artist’s sculptures, for which she is perhaps best known, but presents her lesser-known works and other media as well. For this exhibition, MoMA, which holds in its collection more than two thousand of Bourgeois’ art works, highlights her textile art, drawings, prints, as well as her architecturally-inspired pieces. Bourgeois anthropomorphizes each of the buildings illustrated in these works, giving them the semblance of a face, hair, or appendages. The Happy House prints, rendered from 2001–2003, depict small, blank houses. Each of the drawings in the series centers on a white, portal-like façade, from which parts of its image seem to reverberate indefinitely, centrifugally, to either side, resembling a vulva.
Genitalia are commonly invoked in Bourgeois’ work, speculatively attributed to the wellspring of tension with her father growing up; his adultery and abandonment of the family to serve in WWI, among other things, provided Freudian fodder for her phallic and yonic illustrations and sculptures.
Another iconic Bourgeois form is the spiral. She writes that it “is an attempt at controlling the chaos.” Its movement has the potential to represent “giving… trust and positive energy.” In Spiral Woman (2002), for example, a female with hair so long it leaves the page is wrapped in a cocoon-like encasement, with only her limbs and head sticking out of its ends. The illustration is at once claustrophobic and comforting, evoking the peaceful restraint of a hug.
Sharing a gallery space with the spiral forms are fabric works Bourgeois began making in her 80s. For those familiar with the artist, these are a surprising addition to the exhibit, as they are not typically shown alongside her other work. Each rectangular piece of fabric functions as canvas for collage, drawing, or text; many became “pages” of art-fabric books she would then bind. Growing up in a family that worked with and restored tapestries, and also owned a small gallery that showed textiles, it seems curious that Bourgeois would incorporate this medium into her practice so late in life. It’s possible to read this decision as an estrangement from a medium that so intimately connected her to a tarnished childhood; again, the exhibition references the strained relationship Bourgeois had with her father, the patriarch of the family’s textile business.
Bourgeois seems to have channeled her harbored frustrations against her father’s infidelities into some of the female characters in her artwork. In one piece from the Do Not Abandon Me series (2000), a six-part polyptych of drypoint prints, a woman sits on a chair contained by a large, bubble-looking dome. A child floats in the air beside her bloated stomach, tethered to her by an umbilical cord. In the first image in the series the chair is vacant, without woman or child; in another image, the umbilical cord is bright red while the rest of the print is black and white. The repeatedly pictured bubble-like enclosure may connote the womb from which Bourgeois herself emerged, the literal and metaphoric enclosure from which each of us is born. In this space Bourgeois activates a self-imposed distancing from male presence. Without male partners, her characters focus on the process of producing progeny, an ability limited to those with wombs—for better or worse.
The furniture pieces depicted in the Do Not Abandon Me prints are unmistakably the same cage and chair we see underneath Bourgeois’ spider sculpture. On the wall in the second floor atrium crawls another, smaller spider, Spider II (1995). One museum security guard whispered that the door to the cage under the large sculpture, Spider (1997), was left ajar so that Spider II can crawl down off the wall and into the empty chair. Whether this tale amounted to knowledge of the artist’s intentions, or simply one person’s folklore, it appropriately analogizes Bourgeois’ continuous attempts to explore, subvert, and reconcile a difficult upbringing by lodging those residual turbulences into her artistic practice. The chair is not for us; it is for the artist herself, in the form of her artistic progeny, the excavations born of her own psyche made tactile.
Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait
Museum of Modern Art
Septeber 24, 2017–January 28, 2018