Don’t you cut your lunch up when you’re ready to eat it?

Linda Nochlin

  • Louise Bourgeois’s ‘Spider’: The Architecture of Art-Writing by Mieke Bal
    Chicago, 134 pp, £19.00, November 2001, ISBN 0 226 03575 1

Louise Bourgeois is one of the two pre-eminent sculptors working today; the other is Richard Serra, whose sculpture – single-minded, monolithic, public – offers the most striking contrast to hers in both form and content. Serra is Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog exemplified in heavy metal: Louise Bourgeois is the fox, an artist of many devices, to borrow a Homeric epithet which suits her perfectly. Bourgeois’s career is marked by an almost infinite variety, ranging from direct carving, primitivism and elegant surfaces in the work of the late 1940s and early 1950s – ‘Brancusi meets Giacometti meets Arp meets a ghostly family in a Dogon village,’ as Anne Wagner has put it – to the deliberately regressive work of the 1960s: muddy twists of plaster or latex, reminiscent of entrails, faeces or other bodily excrescences. These in turn led to the production of such icons of the informe as Fillette of about 1968, a ‘two-foot-long latex phallus hung from a hook’, in the words of Mignon Nixon writing in October, and the exemplary rough-surfaced, double-headed (or double-buttocked or breasted) Janus fleuri, Surrealist in its metamorphic perversity but classical in its reference and its bronze symmetry.

In the 1990s, Bourgeois turned to work as large-scale as Serra’s: for example, the enormous, double-cylindered, overtly phallic Twosome of 1991, which kept pumping away suggestively in the company of Courbet’s L’Origine du monde at the entrance to the Beaubourg Féminin/Masculin show ten years ago, promising a sexual excess which failed to materialise in the exhibition as a whole. In addition, Bourgeois has participated in performance pieces and created installations, like the complex, massive yet fragile architectonic series Cells, which proliferated in the 1990s. In her most recent show in New York, stuffed dolls hang mid-air in sexually explicit positions, and her own early work is parodied with marvellous wit in the form of beautifully executed mattress-ticking and other stuffed cloth totems, abject re-creations of primitivist pieces from the beginning of her career.

There don’t seem to be enough categories or words to account for the entirety of the artist’s oeuvre, and, in my case, scarcely enough breath to account for the variety of readings this provocative and suggestive work has engendered (Bourgeois herself is unusually generous in providing biographical if enigmatic clues to their meaning), especially the rich variety of feminist, or at least psychosexual, interpretations, ranging from the pioneering texts of Lucy Lippard in the 1970s, Rosalind Krauss’s brilliant Kleinian reading in Bachelors, and continuing with Griselda Pollock, Briony Fer, Mignon Nixon, Anne Wagner and Alex Potts in a special issue of the Oxford Art Journal (22 February 1999) devoted to the artist.

At the same time, Bourgeois has provided herself with a textual persona as tantalising and contradictory as her sculptural work: indeed, the artist’s writing constitutes an important part of her creative production. ‘I am my work. I am not what I am as a person,’ she declares near the beginning of Destruction of the Father, Reconstruction of the Father, a collection of her writings and interviews from 1923 to 1997. She repeats this assertion in various forms, revealing herself as both hostile to any form of intrusion on her privacy yet anxious to disclose elements of her personal history. Indeed, some details of her family story appear and reappear with obsessive repetition in the numerous interviews she has given: the oppressive macho father; the supportive, hardworking mother; the nanny who became her father’s mistress; the ‘superfluous’ role of the girl child within the French family structure; the importance of the tapestry-restoration studio run by her parents in the suburbs of Paris where she grew up; the liberating effects of emigration to the United States.

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