Brooding yet enigmatic, evoking an aura at once dream-like, tender and faintly ominous, Louise Bourgeois’s Untitled from 1998 is one of the earliest renditions of the artist’s idiosyncratic vitrines that she created from the late 1990s to early 2000s. A prime example of Bourgeois’s mature practice, the complex mixed-media piece features some of the artist’s most emblematic motifs and visual lexicons, namely the hand, which recurs throughout her oeuvre; the use of stitched fabric, which recalls the artist’s family’s tapestry repair business; and sexually ambiguous forms subjected to a ‘hanging’ disposition evokes uncertainty and trauma. Suspended from a hooked steel ring stand, the tumescent glove and cluster of bulbous appendages nestle against delicately translucent purple glass orbs, whose gleaming cold surfaces offer a jolting contrast to the organic fabric textures reminiscent of childhood, warmth and vulnerability. Evoking themes central to Bourgeois’s multifaceted psyche, Untitled manifests as a powerfully sensorial and emotive self-portrait that both looks backwards to earlier iconic pieces and heralds later works in the series.
Bourgeois’s oeuvre is renowned for its psychologically charged nature that draws heavily from her vivid childhood memories. In regards to the present work, Bourgeois’s employment of the motif of the hand can be traced back to what were perhaps the artist’s earliest creative endeavours. As a young girl, Bourgeois was involved in her father’s Parisian fabric workshop where women repaired tapestries, and the artist reflects: “I became an artist, whether I wanted to or not, when my parents, who repaired Aubusson tapestries, needed someone to draw on canvas for the weavers. Very early it was easy for me to draw the missing parts of these large tapestries. There were always missing parts, whether an arm, a leg, or something else” (the artist cited in exh. cat. London, Tate Modern, Louise Bourgeois, 2008-09, p. 286). The ‘missing hand’ motif, harbouring notions of presence and absence, reveals perhaps the artist’s lifelong desire for the warmth of a mother’s embrace; her own mother died when Bourgeois was 21. In her adult creations, hands occur frequently – in various poses, at times alone and at others clutching at another – and often as symbols of not just intimacy but also support and dependence. For instance, Bourgeois’s iconic sculptures The Welcoming Hands from 1996 depicts the artist’s hands clutching those of her assistant and close confidant, Jerry Gorovoy. The artist remarked of him: “When you are at the bottom of the well, you look around and say, who is going to get me out? In this case it is Jerry who comes and he presents a rope, and I hook myself on the rope and he pulls me out” (the artist cited Francis Morris (ed.), Louise Bourgeois, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2007, p. 150).
In the present work, the hand – gloved in one of Bourgeois’s own gloves – is placed protectively over the sexually ambiguous globular sculptures, its fingertips lightly touching the bottom of the two fragile glass orbs. Such a suggestive structural composition alludes to male vulnerability, a theme which recurs particularly in Bourgeois’s later works, such as the well-known Arch of Hysteria from 1993. Bourgeois was well versed in psychoanalytic theory and sought through her works to explore the vulnerability of both sexes. She said: “We are all vulnerable in some way, and we are all male-female” (the artist cited in Ann Coxon, Louise Bourgeois, 2010, p. 44). On another occasion the artist stated, in regards to an iconic photograph taken by Robert Mapplethorpe of her holding one of her best-known works, Fillette, 1968, which clearly merged male and female attributes: “Mapplethorpe took a photograph of that sculpture, Fillette, in which I’m holding it in my arms. Which means simply that from a sexual point of view I consider the masculine attributes to be extremely delicate; they’re objects that the woman, thus myself, must protect” (the artist cited in Ibid., p. 45).
For Bourgeois, the repetition of certain forms gave structure and expression to primordial emotions, as the repeated forms provided the means of externalising introspection and giving physical form to memories and inchoate feeling. Parallel to form, Bourgeois’s choice of material is equally powerful and evocative; as Coxon notes: “The contradiction of material and subject or form and content is precisely the appeal for Bourgeois. These works hold in tension such binary concepts as hard and soft, seductive and repulsive, formed and formless” (Ibid., p. 44). The cold fragility of the glass orbs, juxtaposed against fabric, induces a heightened chilling sensation that alludes to death and the haunting ephemerality of life; by this stage of Bourgeois’s life, the octogenarian artist had experienced the deaths of both her husband and her adopted son. Meanwhile, just as the hand is gloved in the artist’s own glove, the soft sculptures are encased in another item of her clothing, her socks. The use of such items of clothing and fabric not only recalls the tapestries that Bourgeois worked on in her youth but also resonates with her pioneering Cells series (1991-2008) – theatrical “room-like” installations in which the viewer is invited to enter a world of symbolic and highly personal found objects.
Here in Untitled, as in Cells, the viewer plays the part of a voyeuristic observer; and yet, in spite of the propositional nature of the vitrine, its glass surface prevents us from touching its contents. It is this voyeuristic, fetishistic embodiment of intimacy – the push-and-pull of allusions that simultaneously beg for and refuse understanding – that completes the potently alluring aura of the present work. As one of the earliest vitrine works, Untitled commands exceptional narrative power and memorial allusions and is also one of the few vitrines to contain ‘hung’ items – a strategy employed in many of Bourgeois’s sculptures and inspired by another of her childhood memories. Bourgeois’s father’s attic used to store furniture to be repaired, such that “you would look up and see these armchairs hanging”. As Coxon summarises: “Psychologically, hanging refers to a stage of uncertainty (to be left hanging), or of being blocked or stuck with past trauma (hanging on), or of persistent survival (hanging by a thread)”. Suggesting an open-ended multiplicity of form, interpretation and meaning, Untitled is teasing, evocative, and even seductive, embodying the best of Bourgeois’s extensive sculptural practice. Widely regarded as one of the most important female artists of the 20th and 21st century, Bourgeois is currently receiving surging interest and academic attention; in addition to the recent exhibition Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait at the Museum of Modern Art, New York that ended in January 2018, the artist will be honored with a large-scale survey at the Long Museum West Bund in Shanghai this coming November.
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