Do, Undo, Redo: Mantra of a Monolithic Artist

Louise Bourgeois, Portrait of C.Y. (1947–49), painted wood, nails and stainless steel, 169.5 x 30.5 x 30.5 cm. NGC. Photo: Allan Finkelman, © Louise Bourgeois Trust / Licensed by VAGA, NY

Louise Bourgeois was “a consummate maker.” And she continued making right up until her death at the age of 98.

“She was doing a lot of stitching and fabric pieces towards the end of her career. While her mobility became more limited into her nineties, she could work very well with her hands,” says Jonathan Shaughnessy, National Gallery Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, and curator of Louise Bourgeois 1911–2010. “She also worked almost daily on gouache paintings that are to my mind some of the most vivid expressions of many of the themes that continually entered into her production: motherhood, love, loss, domestic responsibility, desires and anxiety…”

The show is currently on view in the main space of the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art (MOCCA), as a special summer presentation of the [email protected] program until 11 August 2013. Artistic Director & Curator David Liss says Louise Bourgeois 1911–2010 is an “iconic” exhibition for the museum. “She is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. For us to be able to present this kind of material is pretty exciting.”

This exhibition started out as a way of acknowledging the relationship between Bourgeois and the National Gallery of Canada, which began collecting her work in the 1990s and made a significant purchase of one of the artist’s final sculptures Cell (The Last Climb) (2008) in 2010. When Bourgeois passed away in May 2010, the tribute became an homage to a brilliant artistic career and life lived.

Louise Bourgeois, Cell (The Last Climb) [2008], steel, glass, rubber, thread and wood, 384.8 x 400.1 x 299.7 cm. NGC. © Louise Bourgeois Trust / Licensed by VAGA, NY

“She was at the forefront of so much,” says Shaughnessy, “such as the use of alternative materials for art-making. There was a handful of women artists working from the mid-twentieth century—Louise Bourgeois especially—who began to challenge traditional sculptural materials. While she used marble and bronze in beautiful ways, she also introduced all kinds of other resources into her work, including textiles and fabric, nylon thread and rubber, as well as weighty substances such as lead and granite. She drew, she painted, but she’s recognized as a sculptor.”

The show strikes a particularly poignant note with the inclusion of Bourgeois’ Personages, a set of wooden sculptures from her first two solo exhibitions at Peridot Gallery in New York City in 1949 and 1950. The totem-like figures were carved in memory of family and friends Bourgeois left behind when she emigrated from Paris in 1938 with her husband, the late art historian Robert Goldwater.

Shaughnessy says the sculptures are grouped to look like people standing around talking at a cocktail party. But the figures are top-heavy, tapered and wobbly so that they can’t stand on their own, reflecting Bourgeois' psychological frailty, her homesickness, her fears and anxieties.

“She was a young artist, a young wife. The assumption is that these pieces helped her grapple with and represent her reflections on new surroundings,” he says. “They were intended to represent people, but they mimic the skyline. She made them on the rooftop of the apartment building she was living in, in full view of bustling Manhattan. Architecture was always an important subject for Bourgeois—how buildings have a hand in structuring life and the emotions. She made an early series of paintings in the mid-1940s called Femmes-Maisons in which the female body is intertwined with a house or an apartment tower.”

Bourgeois also created more than 20 large-scale Cell sculptures over three decades. Cell (The Last Climb) (2008) in the MOCCA show is, as its title suggests, one of her final ones. The oval-shaped installation features rusty iron fencing enclosing a spiral staircase that Bourgeois had custom-made for her Brooklyn studio in the 1980s, and which she would have climbed up and down every day making her art. “It’s pretty special to have that,” Liss says. “It’s a bit haunting. But all of her work has a haunting edge. It’s really about her memories, her life lived, the darker recesses of the memory. She has stated that it was necessary for her to create work to keep sane.”

Louise Bourgeois, 1911–2010 spans 60 years of production, her creative development, and recurring themes. “She had this mantra: I do; I undo; I redo,” Shaughnessy says. “From what I understand, she would sometimes go back to rework sculptures, perhaps adding new paint, long after a piece was completed. She would also return perennially to certain forms. This is something that can be seen clearly in the exhibition. The teardrop shape that emerges in the 1953 wooden sculpture Forêt (Night Garden), for example, was still used five decades later as the form for the rubber pincushion in The Last Climb, and shaped into the five breasts of The Good Mother in a 2007 series of 30 gouache drawings.”

Bourgeois had studied math at the Sorbonne before choosing art as her vocation. Later she immersed herself in reading about psychology. She was known to be extremely analytical. “Her life in art consistently and continually grappled with the way to express fundamental tenets of subjectivity and the human condition through material form,” says Shaughnessy. “She would say that, if you’re not simply going to get over something, if you’re going to have to constantly deal with your past and remake it in some way and make it manageable for yourself, then you have to make something. In her case, she made sculpture.”

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