Having taken a nine-year break from her artistic practice, Louise Bourgeois returned to the studio in 1962 and reengaged with a form that had preoccupied her practice since its earliest days. Spirals appear in the artist’s drawings as early as the mid-1940s and would command the attention of the artist through the duration of her eight-decade career. With its torqued axis twisted into a serpentine curve, Labyrinthine Tower is, like all of the artist’s spirals, a “study of the self,” to use her own words. (L. Bourgeois, quoted in P. Herkenhoff, ‘Louise Bourgeois, Femme-Temps’ in Louise Bourgeois: Blue Days and Pink Days, exh. cat., Fondazione Prada, Milan, 1997, p. 273). To answer her rhetorical question, “Where do you place yourself, at the periphery or at the vortex?” Bourgeois’s placed herself outside of the spiral as its maker as a way to gain access to its interior, where she negotiated “the fear of losing control” against the experience of “giving up control; of trust, positive energy, of life itself” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in Christine Meyer-Thoss, Louise Bourgeois: Designing For Free Fall, exh. cat. Zurich: Ammann Verlag, 1992, n.p.).
Spinning upwards from its base in a series of concentric, angular turns, Labyrinthine Tower ends in the exhausted tilt of its rounded and bifurcated tip, seemingly having spent all the energy that propelled it forward. It is as if the masculine thrust of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919–20), a never built architectural project that symbolized the exuberance of post-Revolutionary Russia and was intended to be a feat of modernity in glass and steel, has been deflated of its enthusiasm. This is all to say that Bourgeois’s Labyrinthine Tower, for all of its architectural references, like much of the artist’s work, is also distinctly phallic in appearance.
For all its references to the male body, Bourgeois understood the twisting motion and labyrinthine spaces as themselves feminine. In an interview with the curator Paulo Herkenhoff, Bourgeois spoke of the spiral as a “feminine geometry. A torsade is something that revolves around an axis. This geometry is founded on poetic freedom and promises security” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in ‘P. Herkenhoff in conversation with Louise Bourgeois, transcribed and edited by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve’, in R. Storr, P. Herkenhoff, A. Schwartzman (eds.), Louise Bourgeois, London 2003, p. 11). A space of confinement, the maze that is a labyrinth is intended to enclose. However, Bourgeois’s labyrinth finds freedom in this trap by ascending upwards, and undoing itself. In this way, Bourgeois has created a form that conjures the psychological dilemma projected upon the female body by Sigmund Freud’s theories on male and female sexuality. Bourgeois reveals sexual identity and the gendered body to be an unstable projection that manifest within and are projected upon from without. Labyrinthine Tower brings together male and female into a single form.
Though her invocation of genitalia is gendered, Bourgeois was careful to articulate that the invocation is not erotic. In another interview with the esteemed curator of the Museum of Modern Art, William Rubin, she said “I am not particularly aware or interested in the erotic of my work, in spite of its supposed presence. Since I am exclusively concerned, at least consciously, with the formal perfection, I allow myself to follow blindly the images that suggest themselves to me. There is no conflict whatsoever between these two level” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in ‘William Rubin – Louise Bourgeois: Questions and Answers’, in M.-L. Beradac, H.-U. Obrist (eds.), Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father Reconstruction of the Father, Writings and Interviews 1923-1997, London 2000, p. 86). Labyrinthine Tower, then, is the synthesis of masculine and feminine, hard and soft, geometric and biomorphic, tower and labyrinthe, periphery and vortex, freedom and confinement, a study in contrasts that seamlessly resolve in space.
Over the eight decades of a life spent in art, Bourgeois returned over and over again to the spiral form. She would draw spirals in ink, pencil, crayon, watercolor, gouache and paint on paper and canvas and craft spirals out of wood, steel, bronze, marble, plaster, iron, and lead in space. Crafted in a wide range of materials, spirals have also been realized in a variety of forms. They spin in concentric circles on the page of a drawing, like tornados viewed from above. They twist into columns, turn into snakes, bend around the corners of pyramids and climb up staircases, and like Labyrinthine Tower, they rise upwards from the ground until they teeter over. In Labyrinthine Tower, the spiral is formed from mottled marble from a quarry in Siena, tower, the Torre del Mangia, overlooks one of city as an appendage to the Palazzo Publicco, one of the very first centralized civic government buildings, having been built in at the beginning of the Renaissance. Like that building, the marble of Bourgeois’s tower is a dust-colored orange, the color of the earth and stone from that region of Italy. Bourgeois created other versions of Labyrinthine Tower in 1962 in a range of other materials. A cast iron edition lives in New York University’s Art Collection at the Grey Art Gallery. The DIA Foundation is the home to a bronze version of Labyrinthine Tower, while a black marble version is in the Collection of LEEUM, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul.
While the references Bourgeois invoke in Labyrinthine Tower range from allusions to towers by Tatlin and in Sienna, Freud, and others, at the heart of the artist’s spinning vortex is a quest for herself that is deeply personal. The pause from art making just before Bourgeois launched full force into the making of Labyrinthine Tower was also a break from society in which the artist attended to a period of depression and attempted to resolve long-harbored childhood trauma. While in recovery, one of the chores Bourgeois was responsible for in her home, was the winding of the clocks. This ritual of domesticity balanced the chaos of the spiral as an act of stability. Speaking of winding, Bourgeois said to Paolo Herkenoff, “To rewind is to make a spiral. And the action demonstrates that even though time is unlimited, there is a limit to how much you can put on it. As you are tightening the spiral you must take care. If you tighten too much you risk breaking it. In this sense the spiral is a metaphor of consistency. I am consistent in my spiral. For me there is no break. There is never an interruption in the spiral because I can not stand interruptions” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in ‘P. Herkenhoff in conversation with Louise Bourgeois, transcribed and edited by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve’, in R. Storr, P. Herkenhoff, A. Schwartzman (eds.), Louise Bourgeois, London 2003, p. 12).