Louise Bourgeoisby Stephanie Buhmann
Works on Paper from the 1940’s and 1950’s
Peter Blum Soho
September 5–November 11, 2006
As one of the most important living American artists, Louise Bourgeois certainly isn’t lacking in exposure. Her works are frequently, if not permanently, on display in international galleries and museums. For example, in 1982, MoMA, organized her last major retrospective, and the Tate Modern has planned its own updated version for 2007.
For an artist of the caliber, unpredictability and range of Bourgeois, whose oeuvre includes prints, drawings, paintings and sculpture, it is sometimes the microscopic curatorial viewpoint that adds insight to an otherwise widely discussed subject. The current exhibition at Peter Blum Soho, featuring 35 works on paper from the early 1940s to the early 1950s (with one exception of a work from 1960), is a specialized survey that reveals telling aspects of Bourgeois’ creative persona and her development as an artist.
To understand the works on display, it is helpful to look at the Louise Josephine Bourgeois of the time. Born in 1911 in Paris, Bourgeois first studied mathematics at the Sorbonne in 1932 before pursuing her interest in art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and the artists’ studios of Montparnasse and Montmartre. Her childhood, as she later explained, was considerably troubled. Though her parents owned a tapestry repair business and were well-to-do, Bourgeois grew up with the knowledge that her father would have preferred a son (her brother was born a few years later). In addition, her father insisted that his mistress, Sadie, originally hired as the children’s English teacher, live in the family’s household. In 1938, after marrying an American student, Bourgeois left Paris for New York and continued her studies at the Art Students League.
The 1940s marked both Bourgeois’ struggle to acclimate to New York as well as break into the city’s exhibition circuit (her first solo exhibition was held at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in 1945, and her sculpture was first shown in 1949 at the Peridot Gallery). Though she had yet to reach artistic maturity, during the 1940s Bourgeois began to build her audience and developed confidence in her visual language. Yet Bourgeois’ drawings from this era should not be mistaken for preparatory studies for larger projects. Instead, they should be understood as accomplished exercises in a vocabulary that the artist would continue to explore throughout her career. In fact, drawing remains a daily endeavor for Bourgeois. In an interview with Marie-Laure Bernadac in 1995 (published by the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), Bourgeois stated that her “drawings must be seen in series, in sequences attached to days, to circumstance.”
The unifying visual characteristics of these drawings are fluid ink lines on gray or crème-colored paper or board. The lines bring to mind organic textures such as grass or hair (portraits from the 1940s show the artist with long dark hair cascading over her shoulders—a common strategy to hide insecurities). The images are as much landscapes of the imagination as they are poetic evocations of Bourgeois’ childhood surroundings in France. In a 1989 conversation with Alain Kirili in Arts, Bourgeois explained how sick she felt about having “left [her] entire family in Europe…. [because she] was the only one to leave.” These drawings from the 1940s seem to convey a sense of homesickness and introspective solitude, an intense engagement with memories coinciding with her change of geographic roots.
In January 2005, I attended one of Louise Bourgeois’ famous Sunday afternoon salons, which have been held at the artist’s Chelsea home for decades. During these weekly events, artists are invited to share their work with Bourgeois and a small group of peers. I remember being struck by the contrast between the almost ascetic simplicity of the entrance hall and the romantically bohemian intellectualism of the library and living area, where everyone met, which was stuffed with books, written notes, personal papers, and certificates. This interior opposition seemed an intriguing metaphor for the emotional conflicts I see embedded in her work.
Especially in the early drawings, there is always space, at times large voids, surrounding tight clusters of strings and swirls. Each line is an artifact of a physical gesture as well as a code that reads as a word in a long sentence of a paragraph in the chapter of a book. In her interview with Marie-Laure Bernadac, mentioned above, Bourgeois referred to her drawings as “thought feathers,” spontaneous ideas captured on paper before they vanish and are forgotten. In Bourgeois’ hands, the processing of life’s impressions can be mesmerizing in its excessiveness; she is an artist who is capable of a passionate relentlessness, as if shaking herself free of worldly inhibitions and past demons. However, despite the intensity of her struggles, she always allows herself room for reflection and retreat in the voids surrounding her forms.
In Bourgeois’ abstract language, battle and resurgence, as well as strength and fragility, are unified on the same picture plane. In a sense, each of her works can be interpreted as a self-portrait. In these clear, immediate works on paper, the essence of the woman, who became a recognized force many years later, is as unmistakably present as it is today.