“So if you consider art as a privilege, then, by definition, you feel that you do not deserve it. You are continually denying yourself something – denying your sex, denying yourself the tools that an artist needs – because to be a sculptor costs you money. If you consider art a privilege instead of something that society will use, you have to save and suffer for your art, for what you love; you have to deny yourself in the cause of the art. I felt I had to save my husband’s money rather than do sculpture that costs money. So the materials I used in the beginning were discarded objects.” *
Acknowledged today as a preeminent sculptor of the past half-century, Louise Bourgeois was largely ignored before the 1970s when the feminist movement in art brought her sexually charged abstract sculptures in marble, latex, bronze, and wood to wide-scale public attention. Born in 1911 in Paris to tapestry restorationists Louis and Josephine Bourgeois, Louise would often help in the tapestry studio when she was a child, by drawing in sections that needed restoration. She soon became an expert at drawing legs and feet (the parts of the tapestry towards the bottom that most often needed work), and these shapes reappear throughout her body of work. Bourgeois’s childhood had a psychological impact on her art as well; her long-suffering mother and charming but chronically unfaithful father produced a household filled with anxiety for the young Bourgeois, which later provided the content for many of her pieces.
In the 1930s Bourgeois attended the Sorbonne, receiving the Baccalauréat in philosophy before studying art history at the Louvre and studio art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Her interest in sculpture sparked when she attended the atelier of Fernand Léger. There, she met surrealists and cubists such as Max Ernst, André Breton, and Marcel Duchamp, all of whom she would later see in New York during World War II. In 1938, Bourgeois opened an art gallery, specializing in works on paper by nineteenth and twentieth century French masters. At this time, she met US art historian Robert Goldwater, and the couple married that same year. Bourgeois moved to New York with Goldwater, took courses at the Art Students League, and began drawing, painting, and making prints. When Bourgeois was pregnant with her third son, in 1941, the family moved to New York’s oldest building, the now-demolished Stuyvesant’s Folly at 142 East 18th Street. Inspired by the vivid light on the building’s roof as well as its placement in the middle of the city but above the chaos of the street, she began using the roof as an open-air studio, creating her Personages sculpture series. Tall, lean, rectangular wood sculptures with rounded elements, the works “reflect[ed] not only the forms of the surrounding skyscrapers and therefore the vocabulary of modernism,”† but as Bourgeois herself explained, they also “were conceived of and functioned as figures, each given a personality by its shape and articulation, and responding to one another. They were life-size in a real space, and made to be seen in groups.”‡
In 1945, Bourgeois had her first solo exhibition at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery. That same year, in collaboration with Marcel Duchamp, she curated the exhibition Documents, France 1940-1944: Art-Literature-Press of the French Underground for Norlyst Gallery; two years later, Norlyst exhibited her “femmes-maisons”—naked female forms with houses instead of heads and chests. Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, Bourgeois’s painting was included in various group shows such as the Whitney Museum’s Annual of Painting, but her sculptures did not have their debut exhibition until 1949, at the Peridot Gallery. Despite her early successes and the fact that she was a respected member of the New York School, Bourgeois had only one solo show—her 1964 exhibition at the Stable Gallery—in a period of over twenty years (from 1953 to 1974). During this time, she taught public school in Long Island and art classes at Brooklyn College and the School of Visual Arts. She also traveled extensively and began working in marble and bronze. In 1973, her marble floor piece Number Seventy-Two (The No March) was included in the Whitney Biennial. That same year, Bourgeois received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 1977, Bourgeois was awarded an honorary doctorate of fine arts degree from Yale University; three years later, the National Women’s Caucus for Art honored her at its conference in New Orleans. She became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1981, and in 1982, Bourgeois became the first women to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1993, Bourgeois represented the United States at the Venice Biennale, and the Brooklyn Museum exhibited her first large-scale spider. Bourgeois received numerous honors and commissions in the United States and her native France, including a grand prize in sculpture from the French Ministry of Culture (1991), the National Endowment for the Arts National Medal of Arts (1997), a Medal of Honor from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia (2005), and the Woman Award from the United Nations and Women Together (2007). Her career is remarkable not only for its longevity but also because Bourgeois was a rare kind of artist—one who consistently surprised and delighted with startling new work.
* Louise Bourgeois, interview with Donald Kuspit in Bourgeois (New York: Vintage Books, Elizabeth Avendon Editions, 1988), .38.
† Josef Helfenstein, Louise Bourgeois: The Early Work, exh. cat., Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, May 1-August 2, 2002 (traveling exhibition), 15.
‡ Bourgeois, 1954 published statement, quoted in Helfenstein, 17.
In 1998, Louise Bourgeois made a series of five individual prints titled Crochet. Working at the Mixografía studio in Los Angeles, Bourgeois used a simple cotton rope to “draw” five unique gestural configurations. By using the technique of Mixografía, prints are made from a cast copper plate, which is then inked, paper pulp added, and pulled through the press in one pass. First developed in 1973, this technique creates a three-dimensional bas-relief print with a highly detailed surface.