The Lonely Runner - Louise Bourgeois Stays Her Course

by Laura Richard Janku

At 92, Louise Bourgeois is still producing vibrant, large-scale work that continues themes explored throughout her career. "I am a long distance runner and a lonely runner, and that's the way I like it," she said in an interview conducted by e-mail in June 2002. The ongoing success of Bourgeois' sculptures lies in their ability to transcend the personal subjectivity of the maker into collective, objective human experience. And in her fresh and fearless approach to materials. But it is the personal origin of the work that fuels its deep emotional impact.


Bourgeois translates memory and feeling into a universal visceral visual language by using materials in a way that heightens both their expressive value and that of the form they describe. She commits herself to no particular material or—like Gerhard Richter—style of self-expression, preferring instead to mine all possibilities for the most potent combination. Working in everything from fabric to bronze, she calls forth the medium's shamanistic quality and uses it to construct elemental forms that balance gracefully between rawness and restraint. Despite the specificity of many titles, the work is more literary than literal, invoking a pantheon of mythologic and psychologic symbolism.

    Her recent solo show—the first in New York since 1994—at Cheim & Read featured large narrative sculptural works comprised of multiple media. Figures of stitched fabric recall her earlier "personnages." But the newer pieces are soft, doll-like compared to the totemic wood and bronze pieces from the 40s. New and old share Bourgeois' obsessive processing of the past and, as in all of her work, this exorcism functions as springboard to many other issues lodged in her consciousness: femininity, self-image, sexuality, mortality.  

Born in 1911 in Paris, Bourgeois was involved at an early age in her parent's business. At fifteen she began working in their successful tapestry restoration studio. However, at that point she was already painfully party to the marital drama epitomized by her father's philandering and her mother's passivity. She fled what she describes as this "nest of nuts" to study math at the Sorbonne which, at twenty-five, she gave up for art. In 1938, newly married to the American art historian Robert Goldwater, Bourgeois arrived in New York. Rather than taking up the common modern cause, the anarchic path of her work became a way to affirm herself and her past through differentiation from the status quo.

    Having worked for so many decades in solitude, Bourgeois' international recognition over the last two decades, beginning with her first museum show at MoMa in 1982, has done little to change her course. Her commitment to the personal throughout the formal reduction of Modernism and Minimalism made her a galvanizing force for the post modern subjectivist movement. Yet hers was not a reaction to contemporary movements, but a force that began with the Surrealists with whom she consorted in Montparnasse in the 30s.  

The vindication of belated acclaim is surely sweet, but for Bourgeois it is incidental: "I don't need success. It's not what motivates me. Though success is sexy." And success in the art world is not so easily opted out of if one wants to continue producing work for public consumption. It is also demanding, especially for someone so entrenched in her own life. The recognition bears public responsibility—if only to refute inaccuracies of interpretation—and Bourgeois vacillates between candor and the caginess of obligation. It seems that the confessional approach she takes to certain parts of her past is a tithe she pays for the protection of other domains. Though a mother herself, she speaks very little of her own family, as if to shield them from prying eyes. Or perhaps, her work is purely autobiographical and it does encompass her children to the extent that they are a part of her. In some ways they are her most successful sculptures of all.

    Bourgeois' new works are haunting. They range from the aggressive emotion fully figurated in Rejection, Hysterical, and We Love You to the more familiar psychosexual symbolism of abstracted works like Cell XIII and Untitled. These vivid three-dimensional tableaux created from fabric sculpture share the complex and explicit narrative of traditional tapestry. Other untitled pieces resemble stacks of children's building blocks constructed from fragments of actual tapestry. But the artist is resistant to neat assumptions about her work coming full circle with her past. "The idea of restoration is deep within me." However, she is quick to refuse textiles any privilege, despite her beginnings in tapestry: "I am not interested in any one material. The materials are just materials, and they are there to serve me." And some serve certain ideas better than others. Cheim & Read describe a shift in message via materials: "The images of severing and fragmentation in the earlier periods of Bourgeois' work associated with the father is replaced in these works by the activity of binding and holding together, associated with the mother. Stitching becomes a form of healing. Fragments become ordered and unified, edges become softer. The integration of the parts represents a desire for restoration, reparation and reconciliation."    

Despite her age, the physical aspect of creating art remains at the core of Bourgeois' ability to reconcile past with present: "The role of my own body is crucial. There is anxiety at the beginning of the process, and hopefully in the end the tension in the body is released." Creation conflates emotion and action, offering new energy and perspective: "Art should help you to be able to deal with other people. It should give you insights into yourself." But it is an ongoing struggle, one in which the artist's stamina and tenacity is recorded by decades of powerful visual testament. "I want to be at peace with myself and others. And that's hard." Assuring-happily for the viewing public-that her process, like Penelope's, will continue indefinitely.

Louise Bourgeois with "Spider IV" in 1996 ~ Photo by Peter Bellamy ~ Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York          Louise Bourgeois ~ Installation Views ~ 11/20/01-1/5/02 ~ Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York          Gallery Design by Mike McCaffrey         © 2002 Artzar - All Rights Reserved