Louise Bourgeois quoted in: Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Louise Bourgeois, 1982, p. 69
First conceived in 1963-64, Torso, Self-Portrait is a truly exceptional work by Louise Bourgeois. It is the only marble and freestanding iteration of this highly consequential sculpture, which started life as a wall-hanging plaster and burlap original that today resides in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Reproduced in every major publication on the artist, discussed widely by art historians, and similarly prominent in retrospective exhibitions of the artist’s work, this ambiguous bodily entity represents a major landmark in Bourgeois’s 1960s production. This sculpture, along with a handful of important works of the period – including the amorphous Amoeba, nest-like Fée Couturière and phallic Labyrinthine Tower – announced a transition away from the rigid upright forms of the 1940s and 50s towards a more organic and heterogeneous figuration. Sitting atop a solid and coarsely hewn wooden base, the present iteration of this form is human in scale and roughly the height of Louise Bourgeois herself; a physical parity underscored by the work’s title. In this respect, Torso, Self-Portrait is one from only a small handful of unequivocally self-referential works; while the entirety of Bourgeois’s oeuvre can be considered autobiographical and self-examining, titular self-portraits are a rarity across the artist’s grand career arc. Despite the clear allusion of its title, however, this work’s substantial corporeal presence is ambiguous and emotionally charged; at once organic and inorganic, hard and soft, male and female, fierce and protective yet homely and vulnerable, the present work denotes a wonderful collusion of bodily and psychological opposites, whilst also inviting a dialogue with the canonical forms of Modernist sculpture. In doing so, Torso, Self-Portrait utterly encapsulates the influential significance of Bourgeois’s practice within the grand narrative of twentieth-century art history.
The present sculpture was carved from Carrara marble in 1982 – the very same year as Bourgeois’s first full scale museum retrospective. Long-overdue, this exhibition was curated by Deborah Wye for the Museum of Modern Art in New York and was received with great critical acclaim. Indeed, for Bourgeois, an artist already in her 70s with a career dating back to the 1930s, the 1980s brought with it a belated wave of recognition. In tune with the burgeoning momentum behind a kind of art that championed expressivity, narrative, and a questioning of embodiment and gender stereotypes, Bourgeois was propelled to the forefront of the contemporary art discourse. A string of honorary degrees, public commissions, and an extensive retrospective at the most prestigious Modern art museum in the world finally commanded the institutional and critical acceptance that she had waited so long for. As such, having re-familiarised herself with phases of her earlier production, Bourgeois began returning to many of the important themes and forms of her earlier work.
As uttered by the artist in many occasions, the mantra ‘I do, I undo, I redo’ is a pithy summation of the forces that drove Bourgeois’s artmaking. That she began recasting and translating forms from her earlier 1960s production to create new works during the 1980s is thus entirely consonant with the spiralling repetition of Bourgeois’s art; the compulsive need to return over and over again to specific forms, shapes, and themes, underscores the deeply psychological and, indeed, highly psychoanalytical nature of her work. In this regard, the sculptures created by Bourgeois during the 1960s – of which Torso, Self-Portrait is one of the most prominent examples – signal an art historical breakthrough and are today considered the most significant of the artist’s oeuvre. Following the rigid pillar-like forms of the previous decade, Bourgeois began combining an erudite knowledge of psychoanalysis with her own emotional experiences to create works of heightened organic and corporeal form evocative of a primeval state of life riven by unconscious drives.
Of this period, Bourgeois’s series of womb-like Lairs presents a protective inner world of nascent corporeality, while pieces such as Amoeba and Torso, Self-Portrait communicate both fleshy vulnerability and maternal protectiveness. As expertly outlined by art historian and long-time friend of Louise Bourgeois, Robert Storr: “Though not strictly speaking one of the lairs, the roughly contemporary Torso, Self-Portrait, 1963-64, is wary and closed in upon itself – in effect, battle ready. This wall relief, whose silhouette nonetheless approximates that of the fully three-dimensional Fée Couturière, is 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” (Robert Storr, Intimate Geometries: The Life and Art of Louise Bourgeois, London 2016, pp. 312-13).
The works of this period coincided with the most intensive phase of Bourgeois’s 30-year psychoanalysis, which incidentally also took place when the artist was combining artmaking with mothering. Together these pictorial expressions of a fragmented corporeal landscape give form to feelings of maternal protectiveness in response to external threat. Alongside an expression of militant maternal aggression, however, the present work also speaks to Bourgeois’s need to protect herself against her own psychological vulnerability and emotional sensitivity. Visible gaps between the ribs of Torso, Self-Portrait’s robust exoskeleton betray unshielded soft, rounded and fleshy forms. Herein, although ostensibly brutal and combative, this piece exudes vulnerability. Indeed, speaking about the present work with MoMA curator Deborah Wye, Bourgeois described this piece as “[T]he way I experience my torso… somehow with a certain dissatisfaction and regret that one’s own body is not as beautiful as one would like it to be. It doesn’t seem to measure up to any standard of beauty” (Louise Bourgeois cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Louise Bourgeois, 1982, p. 69). Bourgeois’s words can be interpreted as body dismorphic: they express a painful corporeal dissatisfaction that, in feminist terms, can be viewed as a projection of the male gaze upon the female subject.
Ultimately, however, subjectivity is complex and multi-faceted in Bourgeois’s work and Self-Portrait, Torso delivers an analogously multivalent sense of self that is paradoxical and opposing via a symbolic language that, in typically gendered terms, is both masculine and feminine. Soft corporeal forms are melded with hard-edged modernist shapes, while rigid phallic forms are met with pendulous swellings in a way that challenges the history of Modernism and the work of its dominant male protagonists. Referring specifically to the present work, art historian Mignon Nixon has observed that Bourgeois recast modernism during the mid-1960s from within the arena of a burgeoning minimalist movement and the political context of second-wave feminism: “Torso/Self-Portrait reproduces the graphic frontality of [Brancusi’s] Torso of a Young Man, recasting its phallic trinity as a bilateral symmetry of breasts, ribs, labia, and buttocks” (Mignon Nixon, Fantastic Reality: Louis Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art, Cambridge, Mass. and London 2008, p. 225). Indeed, at the height of this political moment, influential curator Lucy Lippard picked up on Bourgeois’s pioneering bodily forms and included her work in the landmark exhibition, Eccentric Abstraction at the Fischbach Gallery, New York in 1966. Alongside Eva Hesse, Lippard located Bourgeois within a new strain of minimalist artmaking that was amorphous yet notably organic and corporeal. Akin to Hesse and works of hers such as Untitled or Not Yet from 1966 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), Bourgeois’s work of the period confronted and subverted the hard-edged and predominantly male modernist ideals of sculptural form. Works such as Torso, Self-Portrait thus brilliantly represent the disintegration of these paragons, as detached and sleek minimalist forms give way to an expressive and overabundant intensity of physical and emotional allusion.
In sum, Torso, Self-Portrait is a work of truly emblematic status from this crucial stage in Bourgeois’s career. The creation of its form was utterly unprecedented in 1963-64 and is unlike anything to have emerged since. It is a true masterpiece of sculptural invention that bridges the realms of psychoanalysis, gender studies, minimalism and modernism as borne from a place of brutal self-examination and artistic sublimation.
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