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Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait

Curator Deborah Wye discusses the first comprehensive survey of the artist's prints and illustrated books, on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York

For Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), art was no less than a tool of 'survival' and a 'guarantee of sanity.' Best known for her spider sculptures and provocative figures, Bourgeois's hugely influential work explored themes of sexuality, motherhood, domesticity and the human body across a range of mediums. Key among these was printmaking, which she turned to in the earlier and later periods of her seven-decade career. 

Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, on view until 28 January 2018 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is the first comprehensive survey of Bourgeois’s prints and illustrated books. The exhibit draws on MoMA’s vast archive of Bourgeois’s printed work, which the artist promised to the museum in 1990.

Curated by Deborah Wye, Chief Curator Emerita of MoMA’s former Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, and a longtime friend of the artist, the retrospective situates Bourgeois’s prints in the context of her overall practice and creative process. Here, Wye explains how closer consideration of Bourgeois’s prints allow us to watch her ‘imagination unfold’.

Louise Bourgeois has a long history with MoMA, and you have a long and close history with the artist as well. What made you decide that now was a good time to revisit her prints?

Deborah Wye: ‘When Bourgeois made the gift of her print archives in 1990— with acquisitions coming in for the rest of her life — we committed to documenting and exhibiting the works. In 1994, we published the first catalogue raisonné of her prints up to that date. It included about 150 individual compositions and, with evolving states and variants, about 600 sheets in total. We also mounted an exhibition at that time. Bourgeois was in her 80s then, and we couldn't have known she would live to be 98, and that her print practice would flourish in the last decades of her life.

Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). No. 13 of 14 from the installation set À l’Infini. 2008. Soft ground etching, with gouache, watercolor, watercolor wash, pencil, and colored pencil additions. Sheet 40 × 60 in (101.6 × 152.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchased with funds provided by Agnes Gund, Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis, Marlene Hess and James D. Zirin, Maja Oeri and Hans
Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). No. 13 of 14 from the installation set À l’Infini. 2008. Soft ground etching, with gouache, watercolor, watercolor wash, pencil, and colored pencil additions. Sheet: 40 × 60 in (101.6 × 152.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchased with funds provided by Agnes Gund, Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis, Marlene Hess and James D. Zirin, Maja Oeri and Hans Bodenmann, and Katherine Farley and Jerry Speyer, and Richard S. Zeisler Bequest (by exchange). © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

‘Bourgeois died in May 2010, and later that year I retired as Chief Curator of Prints at MoMA. But I continued to work with the museum on a new comprehensive online catalogue raisonné of her prints on the MoMA website. Right now we have 4,300 sheets available live, and hope to finish our cataloguing by this spring. We expect to have a total of about 5,000 sheets. The exhibition is a celebration of this project.’ 

How has reception of her work changed in the past 30 years, since the first MoMA exhibit?

DW: ‘When I curated the first retrospective of her sculpture at MoMA in 1982, the general museum audience had never heard of her. She hadn’t really sold anything at that point, so most everything we exhibited still belonged to her.

‘It has been very gratifying, in the decades since, to see how her work evolved and to see how much it is now appreciated. At first her work could be baffling, even to me, but by the 1990s it was as if the art world had caught up with her. People like Kiki Smith and Robert Gober and others were dealing with the body, with the grotesque and abject, but she had been dealing with those subjects all along.

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois An Unfolding Portrait. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Martin Seck for the Museum of Modern Art © 2017 The Easton FoundationLicensed by VAGA, NY. 
Installation view of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Martin Seck for the Museum of Modern Art © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY. 

‘That was the decade she represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. She was named by Art News  as one of the 10 best living artists and one of the century’s 25 most influential artists. And it wasn't just her recent work that was getting attention — people were also discovering her early sculpture and that of her middle years.’

How did you approach curating this exhibit? Did you have an overarching philosophy or framework?

DW: ‘With this show, I wanted to present her prints in relation to her other production — to show it as integral to her overall practice. Bourgeois said that she didn’t see any ‘rivalry’ between mediums — that they all said the same thing, just in different ways. I wanted to convey that, and to make the exhibition an exploration of her creative process.’

How is your own perspective on her work different now?

DW: ‘Louise’s psychoanalytic writings were discovered in 2004 and 2010, while she was still alive. She had denied to me and others that she had ever been in therapy. But in fact she started psychoanalysis in 1952, after her father died. She continued in intensive analysis until about the mid-60s, and intermittently until her analyst died in 1985. 

‘Learning this made a big impact on me, and I became very interested in what the psychoanalytic process meant for her work. I always knew she was a great writer, but her psychoanalytic papers are particularly intense and revealing. When they were discovered, she re-engaged with them, asking that they be read aloud to her, and approved their study and publication. Now they’re an essential part of her legacy.’

Can you tell us about the trajectory of her printmaking?

DW: ‘In the late 1930s and 1940s Bourgeois was a painter and printmaker, and did not turn to sculpture until later in the decade. At that point, she gave up painting and didn't return to printmaking until the late 1980s. In the 1990s and 2000s, printmaking became part of her daily practice. In those years, one of her major innovations was with fabric prints and books.

Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). No. 4 of 34 from the fabric illustrated book Ode à l’Oubli, 2002. Page (approx.) 10¾ × 12 116 in (27.3 × 30.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2017 The Easton FoundationLicensed by VAGA, NY.
Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). No. 4 of 34 from the fabric illustrated book Ode à l’Oubli, 2002. Page (approx.): 10¾ × 12 1/16 in (27.3 × 30.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

‘For decades, Louise had saved her old clothes — and those of her mother and of her own childhood years — as well as fabric items from her trousseau. She never wanted to give them up. Eventually she started cutting up the garments and other fabrics to make sculptures of heads and figures. By turning those old clothes into works of art, she ensured that they would never be thrown away.

Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). Spider Woman. 2004. Drypoint on fabric. Sheet 13½ × 13⅚ in (34.3 × 34.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of The Easton Foundation. © 2017 The Easton FoundationLicensed by VAGA, NY.
Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). Spider Woman. 2004. Drypoint on fabric. Sheet: 13½ × 13⅚ in (34.3 × 34.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of The Easton Foundation. © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

‘Then, in 2000, she began to experiment with printing on fabric — on linen handkerchiefs, placemats and hand towels. She loved the results, particularly the way the ink absorbed into the cloth, and the tactile qualities of the surfaces. From then on, fabric became her favourite printing support. She later expanded into fabric books, filled with collages made from bits of her old clothes.’

What does her print production reveal about her broader creative process?

DW: ‘Bourgeois loved to revisit her imagery, which makes printmaking ideal. Creating evolving states is part of the process — artists often print sheets at various stages in the development of a composition, to see how things are coming along. Bourgeois could produce 20 or 30 evolving states. Changes were often based on her moods at a particular time or on a particular day. 

Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), Plate 8 of 8 from the illustrated book the puritan, 1990. Engraving, with hand additions. Page 26 x 19⅞ in (66 x 50.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2017 The Easton FoundationLicensed by VAGA, NY.
Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), Plate 8 of 8 from the illustrated book the puritan, 1990. Engraving, with hand additions. Page: 26 x 19⅞ in (66 x 50.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

‘She was also a very inventive storyteller. She filled her diaries and notebooks with pithy phrases, poetic lists, parables. The illustrated book format gave her the opportunity to use these writings.

‘She also enjoyed the artistic collaboration that is inherent in printmaking, where specialised skills and equipment are often necessary. Louise engaged with printers and publishers at her studio in Chelsea, and was energised creatively by these interactions. Even if she was tired on a certain day, or not in a very good mood, she never turned her collaborators away.’

Bourgeois became a feminist role model, even if she was herself ambivalent about that label. What was her relationship to the feminist movement, and how did it change over the years?

DW: ‘Bourgeois’s mother ran a tapestry restoration business, so from a young age she was exposed to a very capable, professional woman. But I think like other women in the 1940s and 1950s, she suffered from the unequal treatment of men and women — men had jobs and the respect that came with that, and women were often expected to be at home with the children. She felt the inequities of the art world, as well. But her work was also not in line with the trends of that time. When the feminist artists began to celebrate her in the 1970s, she was appreciative and happy. 

Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), Spiral Woman, 2003. Drypoint and engraving. Sheet 17 x 15 in (43.2 x 38.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2017 The Easton FoundationLicensed by VAGA, NY.

Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), Spiral Woman, 2003. Drypoint and engraving. Sheet: 17 x 15 in (43.2 x 38.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

‘While she was not instrumental in launching feminist art organisations, she did participate in various activities — in feminist exhibitions and panels, and in protests. On the other hand, she bristled at the qualification of being a ‘woman artist’. She just wanted to be the ‘best artist’.

‘Also, she had a bit of difficulty with the feminist artists who looked up to her as a mother figure. She would say, “Oh no,  I need a mother myself!”’

What do you hope viewers will take from the show?

DW: ‘I hope visitors engage with the work on an emotional level. Even though Bourgeois was motivated by her own emotional struggles — loneliness, anxiety, anger, jealousy and despair — we all recognise those same emotions in ourselves. Her work can make a powerful connection to this realm of our consciousness.’