Over seven decades, Louise Bourgeois created a powerful body of work, unsurpassed in its astonishing range and complexity. Renowned as an artist's artist, she continues to be a very influential force in contemporary art, creating works that resound with deep feeling and passion as well as highly imaginative approaches to form. Due to her constantly forward looking artistic output, she has been considered a contemporary artist by at least three generations, as noted in the recent catalogue for her retrospective exhibition that originated at the Tate Modern. Her career eludes all categorization, although she was richly connected to movements such as Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Postminimalism, and installation art. While Bourgeois created powerful works in many mediums, three-dimensional sculpture forms the core of her achievements. "I could not be a painter," Bourgeois explained, "The two dimensions do not satisfy me. I have to have the reality given by the third dimension" (L. Bourgeois, quoted in Louise Bourgeois, London, 2007, p. 258).
Employing diverse materials, from cast bronze to carved marble to stitched fabric, Bourgeois has used sculpture to investigate projected psychological states. Moving between abstraction and figuration, much of her work explores personal memory and human relationships. The roots of much of Bourgeois's imagery can be traced to her own life, particularly to her experience of childhood traumas and the fraught terrain of femininity, but her works also resonate on a much wider level, conveying universal themes of emotion, anxiety and longing.
In 1980, Bourgeois took over a space in an abandoned garment factory in Brooklyn, which allowed her to work on a much larger scale than she previously had in her home studio. As a result, she has created increasingly ambitious works in the past two decades, of which the three works presented here are vital examples.
Bourgeois's sculpture Untitled (With Foot No. 2), executed in 1990, bristles with the psychological tension for which her work is renowned. Carved from pale pink marble that evokes flesh, the sculpture startlingly juxtaposes disparate elements, drawsing on the language of Surrealism. Bourgeois creates heightened tension in the contrast between the ragged marks on the rough-hewn base, the smooth sphere's surface, and a baby's leg that unexpectedly sprouts from the sphere, perfectly sculpted to suggest soft flesh. Equal parts unsettling and mesmerizing, the work evokes the unresolved tension of the universal trauma of birth. The sphere, which alludes to long-desired wholeness and Platonic idealism, relates to Bourgeois's interest in mathematics as a young student in Paris. As she recalled, "I majored in mathematics at the Lycée Fénelon. Solid geometry was a revelation and was continued at the Sorbonne. It was the origin of my love of sculpture" (L. Bourgeois, quoted in Louise Bourgeois, p. 148).
Untitled (With Foot No. 2) exemplifies Bourgeois's command of marble, a material that came to fascinate her after a visit to Pietrasanta in Italy in 1967. Thereafter, she regularly visited the famous Carrara quarries in Italy, where Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo obtained their marble. Bourgeois embraced the physicality of carving marble, explaining the process of creating such works in paradoxical terms that amplify her subject's psychological tenor. "You hack away, which is aggressive, and then you polish what you have made, and you oil it and you take care of it, and then you keep it for thirty years. That is a nurturing [process]" (L. Bourgeois, quoted in Louise Bourgeois: Works in Marble, Munich, 2002, p. 24). Through such works, Bourgeois brings to marble, which since ancient times has been used to evoke eternal and ideal forms, a new tension and complexity.
During the 1990s, a dominant theme for Bourgeois was the spider, a subject she rendered in monumentally-scaled sculptures cast in bronze. The sinuously undulating forms of these metal spiders seduce but also menace. With spindly legs outspread as if lying in wait for prey, these massive arachnids suggest that we as viewers are caught in their web. Spider V, created in 1999, is a prime example, which has attained an preeminent status in Bourgeois's career.
The spider appeared in Bourgeois's art as far back as 1947, freighted with enormous personal resonance, as it symbolized her mother. As Bourgeois explained, "This spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother" (L. Borgeois, quoted in The New York Times, October 4, 2007). Yet Bourgeois's spider suggests a predator as much as a protector, thus implying a far more complicated relationship between parent and child. Indeed, the image of her mother was fraught with the anxious memories of her father's infidelity, which pained the young Bourgeois. The spider's menacing form evokes the emotional traumas and entanglements of Bourgeois's childhood that never left her consciousness, and which she used as an important source of her art. The image of the spider spinning its web in fact related to both her parents, who worked as weavers, running a business dedicated to restoring tapestries. As a young girl, Bourgeois would sometimes assist them in their workshop, providing a formative creative experience that continued to resonate in her later work, particularly in the sculptures in which she used fabric.
The psychologically intense sculpture High Heels of 1998 epitomizes Bourgeois's inventive use of fabric in sculpture. Although she had worked with textiles in the 1960s, this method of sculpting gained greater importance in her work of the 1990s. In works such as High Heels, Bourgeois stitched together disparate fragments of fabric, then stuffed them to create bulging forms. These disjointed body fragments alternately suggest joints, limbs and breasts, marked by a Surrealistic sensibility that recalls Hans Bellmer's haunting Dolls. Bourgeois reveled in the macabre aspects of such figures, evoking multifarious forms of psychic unease. The arched back of the figure in High Heels echoes the writhing figure in her Arch of Hysteria series, which brings to mind images of experiments with hysterical patients conducted by Charcot in the 19th century.
Personal experience and artistic expression are inextricably entwined in Bourgeois's art. Building on her own deeply felt experiences and her extraordinary aesthetic imagination, she has created works that convey universal feelings of desire, anxiety and distress. Bourgeois has declared, "In my sculpture, it's not an image I'm seeking, it's not an idea. My goal is to re-live a past emotion. My art is an exorcism" (L. Bourgeois, quoted in Louise Bourgeois: Works in Marble, p. 20).