Proxy Among the Spiders: An Imagined Louise Bourgeois In Now, Now, Louison

Reviewed by John Biscello

Now, Now, Louison, by Jean Frémon
New Directions Publishing, 112 pps. $13.95

There once was a little girl named Louise. Sweet, endangered, watchful and tragic, this little girl, who in her permeable nomenclature was also referred to as Lousion, bore the embryonic shadow of the son and heir that her father desired. Louise and her mother, Louison and her father, a baleful diet of scissors and stones, a garden overgrown with weeds, Here is where the myth begins.

  1. Louise exiled herself to an unlit corner where she was raised by spiders.
  2. The moon was broken before Louise got there. She admired how unfit it was for human habitation. How elegantly cold.
  3. Louise painted. And sculpted. And remade herself according to the laws of symmetry.
  4. Louise fell off the earth into some kind of strange, polarized dream; she became the plaything to hands stronger and larger and surer than her own.
  5. Names were shed. Childhood skinned. There was no more Louise or Louison. Only “The Spider-Woman.”

Through textual portraiture and curvilinear interiority, the writer, Jean Frémon, elliptically renders “a life imagined” of the iconoclastic artist and sculptor, Louise Bourgeois, in his new book Now, Now, Louison.

Frémon, who is a gallerist as well as an author, organized what was Bourgeois’s first exhibition in her native Paris in 1985, when the marginalized artist was seventy. The two remained in contact until Bourgeois’s death in 2010.

The painter, Berthe Morisot, talked about capturing the fugitive effects of light on water, and a similar lucidity is at play in Frémon’s liquidly oblique style. A pooling of fragments and cadenzas generates a mellifluous flow of intimacy, as the reader is threaded into the fragile symmetry of what you might call A Portrait of the Artist As a Woman Inventing Herself. A splintered panoply of moods, ranging from acerbic to feral to rampantly insular, creates a sense of Louise in flux, or in process. The painful memories of her Parisian childhood — her father’s brute chauvinism and philandering, her mother’s silent suffering — were napalm to her heightened sensitivity, with her pinkest bits prey to a vicious time-ghost. “You look at yourself in the mirror. You find yourself faded. You had a particular tenderness for Mother’s soft belly. You recognize it — your belly is just like Mother’s, which brought you into the world. You feel so small. Little Mama. If we didn’t fiercely squelch all memory of our first three years, we would be crushed by the recognition of how small we were. This smallness will always be an integral part of us. The slightest hand held out makes us burst into tears that acknowledge this.”

Bourgeois moved to New York in 1938 — with her husband, the art historian, Robert Goldwater — and it was there that she began trudging the long, difficult road as a painter, printmaker and sculptor trying to make it in a male-dominated, art-world. Men, as towering figures of authority, as long shadows earmarked for castration, gave rise to acid in Louise’s gullet: “It’s a fact: all fathers are vain braggarts and vacillators, particularly mine, and all the presidents of absolutely anything — the republic, the hunting club, the local council, or the housing association — are ineffectual and pretentious, strutting about at the drop of a hat, all Don Quixotes — Leave those windmills to me! I’ll take care of ‘em! All generals, marshals, admirals, colonels, and sergeants are grotesque puppets who, without even raising an eyebrow, send boatloads of young men to get shot as an example to the reluctant. All the celebrated, the decorated, the honored by the powers invested in me etc., etc., all who flaunt their authority, who hide behind their authority, who constantly convince themselves of the solid basis of their authority are ridiculous balloons that we pop like plump paunches that constitute their entire catechism.”

Then there are the spiders. It was in the psychic company of spiders, the very aesthetics of their being, that Louise felt a deep bond and affinity which informed and influenced her work (her “spider sculptures” having becoming a signature part of her canon). Louise kept a “Spider Book,” in which she copied passages and made notes pertaining to the poetry and ecology of arachnids, a motley catalog with philosophical resonances:

“The male wolf spider…is considerably smaller than the female, and he risks getting eaten by her. So to protect himself he captures some appropriate prey — a fly, a mosquito, or small butterfly — wraps it carefully in his silk, and presents the package to his companion with a deference visibly mitigated by fear. He then backs off and waits to see if the strategy will work. If the female succumbs to her usual gluttony, the male can finally cozy up and couple with Madame Wolf, risk-free, while she munches down her little gift. You do your thing, and I’ll do mine, she seems to say.”

“Some species of the Cyclosa and Uloborus adorn their webs with a fake spider or two whipped up from their silk and the remains of their prey — the tough, stringy bits that don’t taste good, the leftovers. From this, they sculpt doubles of themselves, making them the same size and shape, and then they place them on the web where they can easily be seen so that predators will attack this bait instead of them. Ah, that’s my favorite, the spider-sculptor…making its own decoys. Strategies of self-defense as old as the world.”

“But you, you love spiders. They’re beautiful, they’re clean and they manage to be simultaneously both quick and calm. They wait, motionless, in corners, never flustered, never obsessive, never hysterical; they’re serene beings, holding themselves apart, watching. With an animal patience.”

Now, Now, Louison is a lyrical testament to Bourgeois’s unflagging will and spirit, in a career that spanned over eighty years. Having spent a lifetime hermetically sealing vital pieces of herself inside a deeply marveled sanctuary of her own making, Bourgeois paid reverence to her creed that “Art is a guarantee of sanity.” And this sanity was maintained through an abiding love of geometry, precision, and abstraction. Or, as Frémon’s “Louise” attests: “I listen to my cells, that’s all. It’s as if I can hear the millions of cells and bacteria vibrating inside me. What a racket. A whole prehistoric world. The spider is also prehistoric. We’re in collusion, you see. And the burrows, the shells, the nests, prehistoric constructions, organic architectures. Always correct. Fitting the precise dimensions of the space ideal for the specifics occupying it. This is true for sculpture as well. So I pile, I cut, I twist, I fashion, I excavate, I carve, I model, I mold, I turn, I drip, I chisel, I polish, I sand. I am what I make and nothing else. I make, I unmake, I remake. I make fullness surge; I organize voids.”

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