Mind Over Matter: Bourgeois & Kusama

Launch Slideshow

An exhibition of works by Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama is now open at Sotheby's S|2 gallery in London, marking the first time these artists have been exhibited together since the 2001 exhibition of drawings at the Peter Blum gallery in New York. Featuring sculpture, paintings and works on paper, Traumata seeks to re-evaluate the work of these two major figures of contemporary art side-by-side. Through a variety of media, these artists have extensively explored ideas of motherhood, memory and the body — as well as writing poetry around these themes. Spanning a period from 1942 until 2015 (Kusama is still prolific in her production), these works represent not only their shared compulsion to produce affecting imagery, but a cathartic method of navigating the human psyche. Click through to see highlights from the exhibition. 

Traumata: Bourgeois/Kusama
London | 23 February – 13 April 2017 


Mind Over Matter: Bourgeois & Kusama

  • Louise Bourgeois, Pillar, 1949. Private Collection Oslo courtesy of Peter Lund.
    Portable and totemic yet human-scaled, the Personages were created as surrogates for the family members Bourgeois left behind in Paris. Having to observe the Second World War from afar, the Personages enacted a splitting of Bourgeois's self from her attachment to these 'lost' loved ones. These works perform a cathartic and comforting function; the watchful and sentinel-like countenance of examples such as Pillar of 1949 reinforce the Personages's role as a psychical support used to emotionally prop-up Bourgeois during these early years of artistic maturity.


  • Louise Bourgeois, Untitled (Hearts), 1989.
    Based on an earlier bronze cast from 1970, two bright red rubber human hearts dangle from a mobile. Underlining the prevalence of duality and polarity throughout Bourgeois's oeuvre, these hearts relate back to the almost abject and organic hanging forms created during the late 1960s such as Janus Fleuri (1968). Visceral and raw, Bourgeois presents the ultimate symbol of human emotional life as vulnerable and utterly unadorned.

  • Yayoi Kusama, Golden Shoe, 1959–66.
    In 1961 Kusama began covering the ephemera of feminine domesticity – household objects, furniture, shoes and clothes – with stuffed monochrome fabric phalluses. Known as her Accumulation Sculptures or Sex Obsession Objects, Kusama described these works as nullifying her fear and disgust of sex: "I began making penises in order to heal my feelings of disgust towards sex. Reproducing the objects, again and again, was my way of conquering the fear."

  • Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1998.
    Bourgeois never threw anything away – a compulsion she understood as a fear of abandonment rooted in the absences of her father when he was at war, at work, or with his mistress. That she began to use her own clothes during the 1990s is testament to the importance of a past that she refused to let go of. In Untitled of 1998 bulbous fabric appendages and a tumescent glove hang from a scaffold that supports two delicate glass orbs. The bundling of sexually ambiguous forms, the feminine inference of fabric, glove and beads, and the fragility of glass recode a vision of the human body as informed by dream-state association. There is a distinctly Proustian element to this piece that imparts a memory-laden and dream-like union of objects. 

  • Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Nets (ORSTW), 2006.
    Upon Kusama's arrival in New York in 1958, Kusama began to make expansive canvases bearing obsessively repeated wave-like arcs of paint. Executed in viscous glots of white oil over a black ground, these densely textured paintings became the first in her seminal and retrospectively named corpus of Infinity Nets that she continues to make to this day. Narrating her first difficult months in New York, the earliest iterations of these works became a means for Kusama to channel and work through her neuroses as exacerbated by tough living conditions and an entirely alien environment: "Unable to sleep, I would get out of bed and paint. There was no other way to endure the cold and the hunger so I pushed myself on to ever more intense work […] I often suffered episodes of severe neurosis. I would cover a canvas with nets, then continue painting them on the table, on the floor, and finally on my own body. As I repeated this process over and over again, the nets began to expand to infinity. I forgot about myself as they enveloped me, clinging to my arms and legs and clothes and filling the entire room."

  • Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Nets (GKT), 2015.
    Taking the form of expansive canvases over which viscous arcs of paint coalesce to form an unending openwork chain of linked concentric circles, the Infinity Nets are imbued with a libidinous bodily energy. Art historian Mignon Nixon argues that Kusama's large scale Nets parodied the excesses of Pollock and trumped the phallic performance of Abstract Expressionism through an artistic persona that was exoticised, sexually provocative, and self-consciously feminine. Furthermore, In their demonstration of monotonous work the Infinity Nets enact a distinctly 'female' experience of domestic life: boredom. Indeed, to quote art historian Alexandra Monro, the Nets burlesque the "repetitive motions of women's work such as sewing, stitching and knitting." 

  • Yayoi Kusama, Increment in the Spring, 1986.
    Kusama's boxes bear reflective titles that commemorate the passing of time and the seasons in nature, such as Winter (1986) and Increment in the Spring (1986). These dioramas re-purpose and reformulate the phallic fabric shapes of Kusama's 1960s Sex Obsession Objects: between their clustered repetitious forms stamen-like outgrowths sprout. Penises are thus transformed into eggs-clusters that nestle in fecund plant-like beds. Recalling the lyrical and primordial biomorphism of her early works on paper, Kusama's 1970s and 80s output is characterised by an increasing insistence on fertile over-abundance as channelled through the vestiges of past work.

  • Yayoi Kusama, Town, 1952.
    In 1952 a scientific examination of Kusama's early work was presented at the annual conference of Kantō Psychiatric and Neurological Association held at the University of Tokyo. Dr. Shiho Nishimaru, a renowned professor of Psychiatry from Shinshu University, presented this clinical analysis after seeing the second of Kusama's very first solo exhibitions: held in March and then October–November of 1952 at Matsumoto City Civic Hall , these shows reputedly included over 200 of her early watercolours (such as Town from 1952). Significantly, it was Nishimaru who first brought Kusama's clinical condition to her attention and, under his guidance, she engaged in a measure of psychiatric treatment. From this moment onwards Kusama became utterly entrenched in psychological thought and began to perceive her work in definitively psychical terms. 

  • Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 1994.
    The subject of maternal ambivalence can be viewed as the meta theme of Bourgeois's production. Associated with a mother whom she loved dearly and yet derided for her often antagonistic, calculating and calm rationalism, Bourgeois's struggle with the maternal position was heightened by her own difficult experience of motherhood. No other artist has dealt so explicitly with pregnancy, birth, the womb, breastfeeding, the agonizing possibility of not being able to have children, as well as the backbreaking responsibility that comes with looking after them. The threat of violence that overhangs her treatment of these themes confronts a taboo on maternal aggression that until very recently had been largely ignored in psychological accounts of mother-child relations. Providing counterbalance to a type of 'good' motherhood that is exclusively nurturing and passive, Bourgeois stakes a claim for a potentially powerful and 'bad' mother: an empowered feminine position that in itself poses a challenge to feminine stereotypes and masculine patriarchal authority. In Bourgeois's work the ultimate symbol of this is the spider. Connected to fond memories of her mother, the spider is at once delicate weaver, repairer, and fierce protector. In nature, female spiders are also famous sexual cannibals – some species are known to eat their male partners after or during copulation. The conflation of spider/mother thus phantasmally stages her mother's repressed violence against her philandering husband: in death Bourgeois reinstates the aggression that her mother disavowed herself of in life. 

  • Yayoi Kusama, Untitled (Chair), 1968.
    Arriving in New York in 1958 Kusama was, amongst other things, a refugee and survivor of totalitarian rule. With the Vietnam War looming, her acute sensitivity to war's threat and devastating effect activated a militant programme of anti-war Happenings. Kusama's anti-establishment stance made an artform out of protest. Resonating with the contemporaneous sexual revolution, she staged nude protests in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art , at the New York Stock Exchange, the Statue of Liberty, and St Patrick's Cathedral amongst countless others. At the same time Kusama also engendered a series of 'Orgies', 'Love Happenings', or 'Fashion Shows' in her studio and across locations in lower Manhattan. Untitled (Chair) was featured in one of these such events (Sex Orgy/Political Protest/Fashion Show, 1968) in which nude models adorned with clothes of Kusama's own design would pose and engage in a kind of provocative erotic-play.


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