T oday, Louise Bourgeois is considered one of the most important artists of the last century. Very much inspired by the Surrealist sculpture of her French forebears yet utterly pioneering in her minimalist yet highly organic forms, Bourgeois’s practice drew upon vivid childhood memories and was fuelled by complex psychological dynamics: a world of inner-turmoil made universal and physical through her art. Our sales at Sotheby’s this July offer an extraordinarily complete group of works from across the storied trajectory of Louise Bourgeois oeuvre. Comprising works of sculpture that narrate the earliest phases of her ascent as an artist in New York, through to the fabric pieces and emotive gouache works which bespeak a reflective ‘Old Age’ style, this collection was knowingly put together by European collectors and together delivers a nuanced insight into the grand legacy that Bourgeois’s left behind.
Having emigrated to New York from Paris in 1938 with her husband, the American art historian Robert Goldwater, by the early 1950s Bourgeois occupied a crucial position within the front ranks of the advanced artists of her generation. The decade’s mid-point, however, ushered in a fallow period during which she withdrew from the artistic vanguard in New York. Frequent sojourns to Paris in support of her husband’s career meant prolonged absences from the front line of a burgeoning art world, all of which coincided with an emotional crisis prompted by the unexpected death of her father.
Having never fully resolved their fractured father-daughter relationship, Bourgeois spiraled into a deep depression with dizzying bouts of anxiety and self-doubt concerning her work. It was not until 1960 that new works began to come to light – works of an entirely new and novel vocabulary. In these pieces, pure white plaster replaced painted wood, and chambered and convoluted organic forms replaced the upright rigidity of her totems of the previous decade.
Of the 1960s sculptures in the collection, Torso, Self-Portrait, Fée couturière and Germinal count among Bourgeois’s most widely exhibited and reproduced works. Versions of these pieces reside in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and have graced museums spaces across the globe. Organic lair-like forms display an anamorphic abstract vocabulary. These works speak to a regressive state of being; an escape to inner world of nascent corporeality that evokes both fleshy vulnerability and aggressive protectiveness.
In this vein, Robert Storr has described Torso, self-portrait as “a kind of homely armour – a breastplate, to be exact: the torso’s form is girded by two parallel ranks of toothy plaster lozenges that essentially reproduce the piece’s tapered contour… Flesh and only flesh, shelters flesh. With two globular breasts at the top and two larger ones at the bottom that might also be buttocks, Torso, self-portrait represents the self-transformation of [an] exposed ‘belly’. Powerless to evade predatory glances, the woman she personifies seeks safety behind a makeshift armour of scales, each one of which reiterates her endangered sexuality” (R. Storr, Intimate Geometries: The Life and Art of Louise Bourgeois, London 2016, pp. 312-13).
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This body of work made its public debut in Bourgeois’s important 1964 Stable Gallery exhibition – a breakthrough show that represented the culmination of a long-awaited burst of productivity. Among the fifteen pieces exhibited, the nest-like Fée couturière occupied a central position in the gallery. Intentionally titled in French, Fée couturière translates as ‘fairy dressmaker’ or ‘fairy seamstress’. Bourgeois’s titling of the work here invokes the ‘Fauvette couturière’, or Tailorbird, who build their nests from scavenged household or industrial threads and other organic material which it stitches together using spider’s webs.
Through its title alone we are reminded of the artist’s childhood recollections of growing up amongst her family’s Aubusson tapestry-repair business in the outskirts of Paris. Bourgeois’s own admission of the tapestries’ “indispensable” quality and “flexible architecture”, which as a child she used “to hide in”, is particularly telling in relation to the amorphous, protective and refuge-like form of Fée couturière (L. Bourgeois, quoted in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern, Louise Bourgeois, 2007, p. 286). “The tailor-bird is a little bird”, explained Bourgeois; “The title was French right from the start. It’s a piece with holes, several floors, and is like a labyrinth. You can put your hand in it, and you don’t know which is the entrance and which is the exit. It’s a bird’s nest hanging in a tree” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in: Ibid., p. 128). As one of Bourgeois’s very first hanging works that harks back to her childhood, this sculpture would resonate across the next 50 years of the artist’s production. Indeed, made four decades later, Arched Figure conjures many of the same themes and is a further critical example of Bourgeois’ hanging sculpture.
Here, stitched fabric forms a distinctly maternal body, which hangs above our heads from a swelling, impregnated belly. In comparison to the earlier works in plaster, which were later cast in bronze as represented by the works in this collection, Arched Figure of 2004, as well as the Untitled fabric head created two years earlier, are both defined by its soft fabric construction. Like uncanny children’s toys taken out of the context of play, both Untitled and Arched Figure hark back to the Bourgeois family business and her mother’s craft of tapestry repair.
However, far from the fine-detail and expert precision of tapestry sewing, these works are mangled, clumsy, and violent in their execution. Using a vocabulary associated with the artist’s childhood yet aberrant and tinged with the pain caused by her father’s notorious philandering and belittling behaviour, these works embody pain as a vehicle for exorcizing it. As Storr outlines: “Bourgeois was no stranger to suffering. Her father inflicted it on her in many ways, yet even though she could inflict it on those near to her just as willfully and pitilessly, in Louise’s case regret always followed, whereas in that of Louis, so far as we can tell, it never did.
Against that background, the most extreme of Bourgeois’s tormented dolls are an exercise in projecting ingrained anxiety about possible violation and abuse and channeling her cruelest retaliatory impulses into surrogates rather than acting them out on real people” (Ibid., p. 532). Presenting a departure from the traditional materials of bronze and marble used in her 1960s oeuvre the fabric pieces deliver the regressive impetus of the artist’s powerful and celebrated body of ‘Old Age’ work.
"I need my memories. They are my documents. I keep watch over them…You have to differentiate between memories. Are you going to them or are they coming to you."
The two gouache works on paper from the present collection, The Good Mother and The Bad Mother (both 2007), are perhaps the most explicit in their raw confrontation of psychological trauma as related to childhood memories and repercussions in later life. As redolent in the dynamic between both compositions, the subject of maternal ambivalence is key to Bourgeois’s practice and would form the impetus for her corpus of Spider sculptures and other related works including the Untitled web-like fabric piece in the present collection.
Taking root in her relationship with a mother whom she loved dearly and yet derided for her often antagonistic and calm rationalism in putting up with her husband’s indiscretions, Bourgeois’s struggle with the maternal position was heightened by her own difficult experience of motherhood. Translated into abstract form and metaphor in her 1960s works, by the final decade of her life these issues were laid bare for all to see.
Conceived between 1963 and 2004, these pieces bring to life the artist’s autobiographical investigation into notions of memory, regeneration, and catharsis and their role a well-spring for artmaking. As Bourgeois herself once insisted: “I need my memories. They are my documents. I keep watch over them… You have to differentiate between memories. Are you going to them or are they coming to you. If you are going to them, you are wasting time. Nostalgia is not productive. If they come to you, they are the seeds for sculpture” (L. Bourgeois cited in: Exh. Cat., Brooklyn, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory: Works 1982-1993, Part 3, 1994, p. 23). Spanning over four decades, this compelling collection not only presents a rich overview of the psychologically engaged and corporeal focus of her work, but also the narrative of memory which forms the backbone and very architecture of Louise Bourgeois’s prolific oeuvre.