Breaking the Mold
Louise Bourgeois charted her own course. Initially, she studied mathematics and geometry at the Sorbonne, but turned her attention to art after her mother’s death in 1932. She studied painting with Léger, yet sculpture became her métier. In 1938, not long after opening a print gallery in Paris, she met and married the American Robert Goldwater, a specialist in so-called primitive art, and relocated permanently to New York. During the following decade she joined the American Abstract Artists group, and in 1945 was included in the exhibition The Women at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery. Public recognition, however, largely eluded her. As Bourgeois noted many years later, “The fact that the market was not interested in my work because I was a woman was a blessing in disguise. It allowed me to work totally undisturbed.”1
In 1966, the critic Lucy Lippard encountered the little-known work of Bourgeois, and included several pieces in her exhibition Eccentric Abstraction at the Fischbach Gallery. Unlike the methodical abstractions of her male French predecessors or the large canvases of the American abstract expressionists, Bourgeois’ abstractions were soft, narrative, three-dimensional, and exuded femininity. The formative and ongoing matter of her life was not held at a critical distance; rather it was the lifeblood of her sculptures, drawings, prints and assemblages of objects.
The 1970s proved to be a pivotal decade for Bourgeois. In 1973, Goldwater died, leaving her once again to chart her own course. The following year she created The Destruction of the Father, an installation/sculpture made of plaster, latex, wood, fabric and red light that suggests not only the literal consummation of the overbearing father, but a challenge to the Freudian idea of daughters wanting to marry their fathers. It is difficult not to see in this work a parallel to the position of the female artist of the 1970s and in museum culture (MoMA was founded by women, but to date has been led exclusively by male directors).
In 1973, Bourgeois was championed by a group of influential women in the arts; Lippard, Linda Nochlin and May Stevens among them. A letter to MoMA’s director of the painting and sculpture department, William Rubin, makes an appeal for a solo exhibition of her work at the museum. Despite the feminists acknowledgement of Bourgeois, it would be 10 years before a major retrospective would be organized under the female curatorship of Deborah Wye, a young scholar who would become the Chief Curator of the Department of Prints and Illustrated books. It was the first large-scale sculpture retrospective afforded to a woman artist at MoMA. Bourgeois was 70 years old at the time.
Breaking the mold, Bourgeois would go on to have two more major solo exhibitions at MoMA, including the current Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, and her extensive print archive is now housed at the Museum under the guidance of Wye.
- Interview with Rachel Cooke, The Observer, October 14, 2007