Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait

at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC
Reviewed by Phoebe Hoban

The name Louis Bourgeois has become justly synonymous with her giant spiders and other large-scale sculptures. But there has always been another, more intimate dimension to her work. One that is beautifully explored in The Museum of Modern Art’s exquisite show of her prints and illustrated books, Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait.

This under-appreciated aspect of Bourgeois’ genius, ranging over seven decades of her long and productive life, includes 265 prints, as well as about two-dozen sculptures and a smattering of drawings and paintings. The exhibit was curated by Deborah Wye, a long-time Bourgeois friend and scholar, who was also responsible for the museum’s 1982 Bourgeois retrospective, the first that MoMa ever gave a female artist, and is now its curator emerita of prints and illustrated books. The work is striking for its delicacy and hyper-attenuation, as well as for its poignant psychological and erotic content; it makes palpable Bourgeois’ famous motto: “Art is a guaranty for sanity.”

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Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). Spider. 1997. Steel, tapestry, wood, glass, fabric, rubber, silver, gold, and bone. 14′ 9″ × 21′ 10″× 17′ (449.6 x 665.5 x 518.2 cm). Collection The Easton Foundation. © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

Bourgeois has said that her work was her survival mechanism, her form of therapy, and that is readily apparent from the pieces on display — beautiful Band-Aids to dress a brilliant, wounded psyche. But her art is far from merely confessional. Bourgeois is a true master of multiple mediums, including print. She studied printmaking at the Art Students’ League (one of her teachers was Will Barnet), and owned her own printing press. Indeed, over her lifetime Bourgeois created over a thousand individual prints.

The show unspools on two floors, with the museum’s second-floor atrium housing the inevitable spider, in this case Spider (1997), a 15-foot tall steel arachnid that serves as a canopy (protector or predator?) arching over one of Bourgeois’ so-called “Cells,” a mesh-enclosed cylinder containing an assemblage of totemic items, including a large swatch of vintage fabric — a reference to the Bourgeois family’s tapestry restoration business, which frequently informs Bourgeois’ work. A series of 16 magnificent, large, luxurious etchings done between 2006 and 2009 line the walls of the atrium; they have botanical themes (leaves, vines, wheat sheaves) and are notable for their sensual, sinuous lines and size — elegantly narrow and a full five feet tall, like the panels of a folding screen. Also striking are their revealing titles; “Opening Up,” “The Unfolding” “Losing It” and “The Awakening.”

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Louise Bourgeois. Femme Maison. 1984. Photogravure, with chine collé. Plate: 10 1/16 x 4 7/16” (25.6 x 11.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Taken as a whole, the show itself is like a giant piece of fabric woven from the individual strands of Bourgeois’ lifelong themes — betrayal, abandonment, loss — themes she repeatedly returned to, as if by telling the same story multiple ways she could alter its trajectory. Indeed the medium of printmaking itself, typically done in sequences and/or editions, is by its very nature iterative, and Bourgeois exploited that aspect of the technique to its maximum degree.

The entrance to the main exhibit is a show stopper: 36 small prints on fabric (39 digital; six screen) from the 2007 illustrated book, The Fragile, lined up like squares on a quilt. Tinted with small splashes of indigo blue and rose, they feature delicate minimalist images: a pair of breasts, a spider, a profile. The rest of the show is organized by over-arching themes: “Architecture Embodied,” “Abstracted Emotions,” “Fabric of Memory,” “Alone and Together,” “Forces of Nature” and “Lasting Impressions,” and each section contains superlative examples of Bourgeois’s singular vision.

“Architecture Embodied,” for instance, starts with a small but potent work, Femme Maison (1984), a photogravure on pink chine colle: it depicts a nude woman with a house in place of her torso and head. Not surprisingly, it became a feminist emblem in the 1970s; earlier versions of Femme Maison include an antic house with legs, arms and long flowing hair (1947) and a striking painted version, where the hair resembles chimney smoke (1946–47).

Bourgeois’ sly humor and surrealist bent are sharply expressed in a series of plates from her famous illustrated book, He Disappeared Into Complete Silence (1947). One plate tells the simple tale of a beautiful girl being stood up on a date; another plate depicts the story of an angry man who cuts up his wife, makes her into stew and has a dinner party…

To read more of this review, go to Riot Material magazine: http://www.riotmaterial.com/louise-bourgeois-unfolding-portrait/

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