OTI Online
Fall 1994

Louise Bourgeois' Feminist Art
by Arlene Raven

The powerful art of Louise Bourgeois falls between categories - when male thinking dominates the category-making.

Louise Bourgeois is definitely not history. At 83, she is still hungry, angry, and wildly creative.

Bourgeois' current surge of artistic power is atypical for an octogenarian artist. She might be expected, in her "later" work, to refine the discoveries of earlier inventions or literally rest on her laurels.

Louise BourgeoisBut this artist's state of imaginative being follows a more exemplary and a more typically female professional shape, as seen at a show at The Brooklyn Museum this spring and at the most recent Venice Biennial. As any honest woman in the arts will tell you, the key to success is: Live long. Be strong.

Bourgeois worked with a minimum of public support from the 1950s until the 1970s, when female art professionals active in the women's movement acknowledged her contribution and began to delve into the feminist meanings of her forms. Her new visibility arrived on the heels of a lifetime of under representation in chronicles about the history of modern art and isolation among her peers as someone who was "outside of categories."

No one can deny that the Bourgeois retrospective in 1982 at the Museum of Modern Art when she was 71 was long overdue—if compared to the survey expositions of men of equal or lesser accomplishment. But much better late than never. The recognition of her achievement was, I believe, good for her artistic soul. The drawings, sculpture, and installations of the past 11 years in "Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory, Works 1982-1993" are surprising in their consistency as well as rewarding in their location of new conceptual and material ground for the artist. Since then, Bourgeois' productivity has soared, and her inventiveness has flowered even further.

Because the international art world has of late embraced Bourgeois, it may now seem diminishing, and possibly impolite, to call her a "feminist" artist. Such a designation would invite critics, historians, and curators to continue to marginalize her work and to leave her standing outside of the perimeters of "great art" or even "art" itself. The early appreciation by feminist women of the arts is thus all but erased from the documentation of Bourgeois' career as it has been most recently written. And feminist esteem, when mentioned, goes by any other name.

"I worked in peace for 40 years," says Bourgeois, graciously, in a 1993 interview with Brooklyn Museum Curator of Contemporary Art Charlotta Kotik, (mis)remembering the devastating obscurity of most of her art-productive life.

Kotik colludes in the cover-up of what has to be the cardinal moment of Bourgeois' creative history 'when she writes in the exhibition catalogue that the artist was recognized by "proponents of change in the late 1970s. She became an example for those with the courage to draw inspiration from their innermost feelings and to turn away from the spent modernist tradition toward the darkly subjective and elaborately eclectic realm of postmodernism."

The use of "categories" such as modernist and postmodernism is meant to empower Bourgeois' art. Women artists are frequently seen as outsiders, as if critics are overwhelmed by the 'differences' in a female vision and can't see the similarities with others in the artists' geographical (New York School) or stylistic (20th-century biomorphic abstraction) school. This serves, consciously or subconsciously on the part of the art historians, to keep women like Bourgeois and Georgia O'Keeffe out of the historical canon—the record of artistic achievement.

But redressing this error should not be done at the cost of neglecting Bourgeois' most profound messages. "Feminist" is what Bourgeois' art is and has always been. Yes, there are various, and sometimes contradictory facets of the feminist philosophy, history, aesthetics, and ethics now on the ideological table. And all are also subject to a generational revisionism. Nevertheless, there are still some basics we might all call "woman-identified" or "feminist" characteristics and issues. These can be found in Bourgeois' work from the start.

Bourgeois' first sculptures, made during the late 1940s, are tall slender figures that serve as symbolic stand-ins for members of her biological family. Born on the legendary Left Bank of Paris in 1911, Bourgeois spent her childhood among the historical tapestries in her parents' gallery. Restoration of these tapestries was constant labor in the household studio opened right after World War I in 1919. To participate in the family business, Bourgeois learned drawing as a child in this domestic, and at the same time, professional milieu. More than 70 years later, Bourgeois draws her mother as the spider who spins so far and wide that she still largely authors Bourgeois' inner world.

A marble facsimile of Bourgeois' childhood home in Choisy-le-Roi, a suburb of Paris, is enclosed in a cage (cage also being a translation of "choisy") that could hold a human or two. But beware of assumed "family values." To enter the mysterious translucent mansion, one must pass under the guillotine the artist has constructed. Off with your head. Bourgeois' troubles began with the head of the house, her father and betrayer. Always known to include "autobiographical content"—the term kept deliberately nebulous— she startled readers of Artforum magazine where she composed the artist project pages in the early 1980s. Her photographs and texts told of treachery by her father during her adolescence when her English tutor Sadie was also her father's mistress and lived for a sneaky ten-year existence under the family's roof.

Sexual politics unfurl in Bourgeois' preoccupations with the female figure and the image of the house. In some of her most poignant statements, these icons and the concepts they embody, merge to tell of the complex relationship of women and home.

"Femme Maison," a white marble statue of 1983, is a sweeping triangle of darts and folds. The curvy diagonals look almost like real fabric instead of stone, and the female figure assumed to be present underneath the filmy garment seems fully represented by her "clothing." A hard-edged rectangle that is unmistakably an abstracted house serves as a head or headpiece, sitting at the apex of this triangle, formalistically at odds in every way from the rest of the sculpture.

Bourgeois' images of the "house woman" or "woman-house" since the 1940s are contemporary with Simone de Beauvoir's pivotal The Second Sex (1949), and prefigure Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963), and the 1971-2 Woman-house in Los Angeles.

Bourgeois explored abstract art; she had firsthand experience with modern art movements in both Europe and the U.S. Arriving here in 1938, she was an eyewitness to the rise of abstract expressionism, a participant in the community that spawned the New York School, and anticipated process art and minimalism. But her central preoccupation remained the sexed figure.

A majority of her forebears and peers sought to eliminate the body's vulnerability and inevitable decay from their portrayals, focusing instead on the enduring and unchanging nature of its materials. Brancusi, for example, smoothed facial features to an absolutely seamless surface, achieving an unblemished, "purified" body, which was, in the end, a bodiless ideal. Duchamp referenced the body as a perfect machine that never broke down or died. Bourgeois is distinct in celebrating the mortal matter of which we are made. Her bodies may be fragmented, with parts that stand for the whole, but the physical human never loses her fundamental integrity.

Bourgeois craved stability and continuity. She was drawn to Euclidean geometry as a young woman because "the rules are eternal, and the points of reference do not change from day to day." But she instead embraced headlong the risky topology of her art. She avoided both life casts, in which the presence is captured yet the person is absent, and death masks, the '"perfect" molding of the human face or figure, commemorating eternity. Her sculpted and drawn figures are not corpses, either living or dead. The courageous truth in all of her work points to the fixed facts of change, of human metamorphosis and mortality, as experienced in the female corpus. It is the most profound implication of Bourgeois' work that can help us "place" her considerable gifts to 20th-century art as both modernist and feminist.

Art historian Arlene Raven, Ph.D., has published six books on contemporary art. She writes criticism for the Village Voice and a variety of art magazines and academic journals. Raven was a founder of the Los Angeles Woman's Building, the Feminist Studio Workshop, and Chrysalis magazine.

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