Last week found me relaxing on the beach and in the glorious sea during a quick trip back to my home state of Florida. Spending hours on a small boat with nothing much to do, watching others fish and staring out across seemingly endless turquoise waters, I also found myself frequently lost in thought about Louise Bourgeois.
I, like many others in the world, woke up on Tuesday morning with the (by now fairly widely spread) news that Bourgeois had died. At 98, it should have come as no surprise, yet I was rather struck with a breathless feeling of loss. I still quite vividly remember the day that this grand dame of sculpture first became a part of me… 18 years old, my first semester at university and first time living away from home, immersed in a life-consuming foundation art theory and practice course, with the task of selecting my first of three contemporary artists to research and profile during the term. Without knowing anything about her, I somehow settled on Bourgeois and went about the task of dutifully collecting every book I could find referencing her from the library shelves. A couple of days later, (this is the part that I distinctly remember) I was laid out on my dormitory floor, room to myself, books spread around, my sketchbook-cum-diary open in front of me, completely absorbed in the small photo reproductions and the story of this incredibly self-aware woman before me. This is one thing that ended up coming out of that night:
The other thing was the root of a (so far) lifelong closeness with her work. Sitting there in the dark on the thin carpet, her early drawings fascinated, her sculptures unnerved. But without a doubt they all resonated with me. Below is an excerpt of what I scribbled down in that book hurriedly at the time:
“…Her works make you feel raw and exposed- it’s powerful. After reading her biography and her inspiration for art it took a whole new dimension. Now there’s pain too, and anger. I thought it was so incredible how Louise’s whole inspiration is this negative response to her family, how delicate and emotional that issue is for her, but how powerful her works are as a result. As Louise aged and matured, her work became more audacious. Still abstract, her later works have more direct male and female sexual symbols, more organic shapes. It makes them more human, more alive. The earlier ones were cold negative responses, the new sculptures have more life- they speak more readily to me. Her works still make me uneasy sometimes but I think it’s a wonderful sensation because it is exactly what art should be doing. It makes you question self, nature, and experience.”
But now I’ll add that perhaps their most poignant quality is that they make you feel alive.
A few months later I was lucky enough to experience three of her early sculptures (Spring, Untitled and The Winged Figure) in the flesh at DC’s National Gallery of Art and I remember that vividly too. They sat there, fairly inconspicuous in size in a room dazzled by Calders, absolutely commanding their little corner of the room. When you approached them you end up forgetting everything else in the room due to their quietly penetrating magnetism.
I remembered this feeling years later when walking around Tate Modern’s retrospective exhibition of her work in London. Much has always been said about Louise’s main source of inspiration: her family life as a young girl, her father’s infidelity and the feelings that that caused. Journalists and even the artist herself constantly refer to these events as if they were ones her fertile conscious could never quite escape. Though the story is intriguing, I don’t really feel it is necessary to the experience of her work. Where Bourgeois truly triumphed was in making her works speak without stories, enabling them to communicate through the sheer (often uneasy) honesty and eloquence of their forms. Whether she’s working large scale or small scale, in wood, latex, pen and ink, marble or fabric, her consistent vocabulary stirs our most intrinsic fears, feelings and desires. It makes you feel human. With Louise, I (and this is rare for me) don’t want a story or explanation. The experience is enough.
When I visited the Tate by myself to take in that retrospective I was just coming out of a rather dark period in my life. One where I had somehow lost my sense of self. I hadn’t felt particularly human nor alive much in the past year. But then I was on the up, and the hour or so spent wandering, fascinated around her works was like shooting little electrical currents into my gut, stirring up a familiar fascination with the world that I hadn’t felt in some time. I picked up the little souvenir below during that trip, and have been displaying it in my bedroom ever since. Once again, Louise had got it exactly spot on.
So hat’s off to you, Madame, for sharing with us your remarkable courage and vision. I, for one, will cherish it always.
If you’re in London, a few of Louise’s sculptures can currently been seen in the Barbican’s Surreal House exhibit, which runs until September 12.
And the title of this post is another gem from Louise. She inscribed it in pencil on pink paper in 2000.