In 1947 Louise Bourgeois conceived He Disappeared Into Complete Silence at Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17. Published by the artist herself, the purpose of the project was to increase her own notoriety in the New York school, a milieu she already inhabited as a function of her recent marriage to art historian Robert Goldwater. The book was intended as a declaration of her own prowess in the printing studio and importance as an artist, a legacy that endures to the present day.
He Disappeared Into Complete Silence consists of nine black and white engravings of various size, with accompanying parables written by the artist herself. Bourgeois also recruited the poet Marcus Bewley, director of the Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century gallery, to provide an introduction. In addition to her work on the printing plates, Bourgeois designed the beige linen cover and portfolio flaps following study of other artist’s books at various print rooms in the city. 1 Bourgeois was familiar with the format from her father’s collections and the rare bookshops and print auctions she frequented in Paris before moving to New York. Following her mother’s death in the late 1930s Bourgeois even sold prints, drawings and illustrated books in her father’s tapestry gallery before her move to New York.
Technically the prints in the portfolio show a debt to the lessons Bourgeois learned at the Atelier 17 studio, particularly the use of scorper on plate 7. Their compositions recall other Surrealist prints, particularly the etchings of her friend Joan Miro and Hayter’s own engravings. The subject matter is entirely Bourgeois’ own, exploring the mundane nature of everyday life and the tragic consequences of missed communications. Like all of Bourgeois’ work, these themes are deeply personal and are related to her own isolation in a foreign land. Many critics have commented that the book marks the transition in the artist’s work between her life in Paris and her life in New York.
The images in He Disappeared Into Complete Silence are closely tied to Bourgeois’ sculptural practice. By the late 1940s she had abandoned painting in favor of tall, spindly wooden forms closely connected to Modernist architecture. Bourgeois was fascinated by the emerging skyscrapers of the New York City skyline and personified them with human emotions in the accompanying text to the portfolio. 2 The dark bold lines in her engravings create stark images seemingly unmoored from their surroundings. Their severe geometric nature is emblematic of Bourgeois’ observations of her new modern urban setting.
Bourgeois marketed the book herself, sending copies to influential critics such as the Museum of Modern Art’s Alfred Barr (see the dedicated example of this portfolio at the National Gallery) and printing her own postcard order forms for book shops. As was often the case with major print portfolio projects in the 19th and 20th centuries, He Disappeared Into Complete Silence was not a commercial success. Bourgeois ambitiously intended for an edition of 54 examples as described on the book’s justification page, but less than 25 copies were ultimately printed. Complete examples assembled by Bourgeois in 1947, such as the present lot, are even more rare due to weak demand. This was a great disappointment to the artist and as a result she abandoned printmaking until the 1970s.
By the 1970s and 1980s as Bourgeois fame grew the importance of He Disappeared Into Complete Silence became clear. The book was exhibited at several important shows devoted to her work and was seen in direct conversation with her sculpture and a hallmark of her work that was to come. The edition’s commercial failure continued to haunt Bourgeois however, and was compounded by her unusual loss of her original printing plates from 1947. As a result, Bourgeois published a new version of the portfolio in 2005, with two new compositions included and hand-coloring throughout. 3
The notoriety of this project continues not only as a function of its importance to Bourgeois’ work as a mediation on the themes of isolation and loneliness explored throughout her career, but also as a touchstone to contemporary artists and printmakers. In 2011 a complete show at De Hallen Haarlem was devoted to the reinterpretation of the portfolio including works by Carol Bove, Tracey Emin and Zoe Leonard. 4
The present lot is an extremely rare complete example of He Disappeared into Complete Silence likely assembled in the 1940s. When compared to the Museum of Modern Art’s example, it appears that this example includes an unrecorded state between Wye's state II and III on Plate I. Christie’s is grateful to the Museum of Modern Art's Chief Curator Emerita Deborah Wye for her examination and expertise regarding this lot.
1 D. Wye, Louise Bourgeois An Unfolding Portrait, p. 17
2 D. Wye, Louise Bourgeois An Unfolding Portrait, p. 38
3 D. Wye, Louise Bourgeois An Unfolding Portrait, p. 52
4 De Hallen Harlem website