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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection

Nature Study

Nature Study
carved with the artist’s signature and date ‘L. Bourgeois. 1986.’ (on the side edge)
pink marble
29 1/2 x 34 x 29 1/2 in. (74.9 x 86.4 x 74.9 cm.)
Executed in 1986.
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1986
D. Kuspit, "Louise Bourgeois: Where Angles Fear to Tread," Artforum, March 1987, p.117 (illustrated).
R. Storr, Intimate Geometries: The Art and Life of Louise Bourgeois, New York, 2016, p. 499 (detail illustrated).
New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Louise Bourgeois, May-June 1986.

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Lot Essay

Since the fears of the past were connected with the functions of the body, they reappear through the body. For me, sculpture is the body. My body is the sculpture.

Intense yet mercurial, the artist Louise Bourgeois has unveiled a staggering array of hauntingly-beautiful sculpture throughout her long and prodigious career. Informed by her own childhood memories and her thorough knowledge of art history, psychology and the interdynamics of familial life, Bourgeois created a sculptural oeuvre that remains one of the most innovative, meaningful and downright radical of the past forty years.

In the 1980s, Louise Bourgeois embarked upon a series of enigmatic sculpture that were hand-hewn from Italian and Portuguese marble. In the present work, which Bourgeois carved out of pink marble, a small child’s hand is seen to emerge from a nest of muscular, coiled forms, where the pink color of the marble evokes the softness of flesh. Bourgeois has retained the rough-hewn look of the marble slab, which acts as a foil to the sinuous, organic quality of the soft pink creature she creates.

Entitled Nature Study, the present work belongs to an important body of work sharing a similar title, which Bourgeois created between 1984 and 1986. Most of these enigmatic sculptures were executed in bronze, but Bourgeois also explored wax, plaster and rubber at the time. Only a select few were realized in pink marble, as in the present work. Other examples are now retained in important museum collections, including Nature Study (1986), in bronze with silver patina, now in the Tate London and the larger pink marble Nature Study (also 1986), in the Harvard Art Museum.

In this example, Bourgeois has rendered a fascinating creation that is full of inherent contradictions, where many of the dichotomies that have long underpinned her work are revealed. The relationship between inside and outside, male and female, hard and soft, and real versus surreal are all personified in Nature Study, where the coiling figure seems to wrap in upon itself, as if protecting its most vulnerable parts from the outside world. A series of soft, tubular forms emerge from this strange creature. They are both gentle and tender, like arms and limbs wound together in a tight embrace, but they are also sinister and decidedly inhuman, taking on the appearance of tentacles, ropes and snakes, calling to mind the ancient Laocoön, who struggled to free himself from the horrifying clutches of giant serpents. Emanating from the top of this strange creature is a small child’s hand. Its fingers rest delicately upon the innermost coil, which is twisted around itself. The vulnerability of the child’s outstretched hand, so defenseless and small, is contrasted to the sharp point that protrudes from the creature, like a bee’s stinger or some hideous monster’s tail.

The mid-1980s found Bourgeois engaged in a new and exciting time in her career. She had been given a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1982 (the very first large-scale retrospective devoted to a woman artist in MoMA’s history), along with copious magazine articles and honorary degrees. Although she was in her seventies, Bourgeois was just then hitting her stride. Each day she commuted from her Chelsea townhouse on the west side of Manhattan to her sprawling Brooklyn studio. Its huge scale was only outmatched by Bourgeois’s ambition. Spanning 15,000 square feet, it comprised two floors, with tall ceilings and ample natural light streaming in from the windows. It was there, as well as her open-air studio on Staten Island, that Bourgeois embarked upon the ambitious new series of marble sculptures to which Nature Study belongs.

In Nature Study, Bourgeois settled on a weighty piece of imported pink marble. In her hands, the marble could be as soft and sensuous as flesh, evoking Michelangelo’s Pietà, or it could be brutal and expressive, with the rough-shod texture of Rodin. Bourgeois was unafraid to tackle the historicity of the material, and here she allows the natural veining of the marble to emerge along one side of the piece that has been sliced clean, revealing a beautiful array of purple, pink and yellow streaks. Elsewhere, she has chiseled the material in a rough pattern as if to accentuate its natural state, and finally, in the strange coiling form that rests upon the marble block, she demonstrates her almost chimerical flair for transforming the cold, hard stone into the soft warmth of human flesh.

Many of Bourgeois’s most important, long running motifs are intertwined in the imagery of Nature Study, including the spiral, the tenderness of human hands, and the drama, historicity and durability of the pink marble. The spiral is an especially important theme, explored in countless drawings, and even in the bodies of her colossal Spiders, in which the abdomen of the spider is wrapped in sinuous material that encircles its eggs. Indeed, the spiral evokes the natural cycle of motherhood and childbirth, but it also refers to the tactile experience of Bourgeois’s youth in France, growing up amidst a family of weavers and restorers of antique tapestries. The spiral therefore emerged from the bobbins of colorful thread that she wound and re-wound countless times as a girl. These memories were intertwined with the trauma of her childhood, in which Bourgeois’s father began a love affair with her own governess. Bourgeois would later explain: “The spiral is important to me. It is a twist. As a child, after washing tapestries in the river, I would turn and twist and ring them [...] Later I would dream of my father’s mistress. I would do it in my dreams by ringing her neck. The spiral – I love the spiral – it represents control and freedom” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in P. Gardner, Louise Bourgeois, New York, 1994, p. 68).

“Sculpture is a simple, subliminal language,” Bourgeois once said. “Few people know or even understand it” (L. Bourgeois, in conversation with Jerry Gorovoy, 1994, quoted in Louise Bourgeois, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2007, p. 256). Indeed, Bourgeois often allowed her own subliminal thoughts and memories to inform her sculpture, and this was combined with her own prodigious knowledge of and participation in, some of the greatest artistic developments of the 20th Century. Bourgeois had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris in the 1930s—first in mathematics which she later abandoned for art—and then at the Atelier Fernand Léger. In 1938, she married the art historian Robert Goldwater, who introduced her to the art of African and Oceanic cultures. They moved to New York before the outbreak of the Second World War, and through the circle of other European emigres exiled in New York, they met artists like Le Corbusier and Joan Miró. Although it would take the art world over thirty years to catch up to Bourgeois’s genius, she had seamlessly translated the Modernist and Surrealist aesthetics of the pre-war era through her own unique vernacular, which was informed by her deeply-held feelings and beliefs. This, combined with her own identity as a woman, a mother, and a working artist, has allowed her to create a haunting and provocative body of work that is unrivaled in twentieth-century art.

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