Trailblazing sculptor Louise Bourgeois, 98, dies; art inspired by traumatic past

French-born American artist Louise Bourgeois, 98, died Monday of a heart attack. Her works are in the permanent collections of such museums as Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art.
By Michael O'Sullivan
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Louise Bourgeois, 98, a French-born American artist and feminist trailblazer celebrated for sculptures that mined her own past for their highly personal -- and often disturbingly psychosexual -- subject matter, died Monday at a hospital in Manhattan after a heart attack.

Memory was her most constant muse.

Ms. Bourgeois's works, which are in the permanent collections of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and many other institutions, typically grappled with themes of sex and the body, violence and depression, marriage and motherhood, and aging and childhood.

During a career spanning more than seven decades, Ms. Bourgeois (pronounced "burzh-WAH") came to be best known for a series of giant, benevolent spiders, inspired by the artist's beloved mother Joséphine, who was a weaver.

One such arachnid, the size of a jungle gym, in shimmering, silver-nitrate-coated bronze, has been on display for more than a decade in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. Along with Magdalena Abakanowicz and Coosje van Bruggen, Ms. Bourgeois was one of only three women, out of 18 modern and contemporary sculptors, whose art is included in the garden.

Often lumped among the artists of the surrealist movement -- a designation that the unconventional artist bristled at -- Ms. Bourgeois's art made frequent use of body parts and hybrid, sometimes amputated figures. It was, she often said, an expression of her attempts to come to terms with painful episodes in her life. One trauma in particular made a lasting impression.

Art from betrayal

When Ms. Bourgeois was a girl, her father, Louis, began a decade-long affair with his daughter's teenage English tutor, someone Louise considered her close friend. "For too many years," the artist would later write, "I was frustrated in my terrific desire to twist the neck of this person."

That sense of betrayal and dysfunction would crop up throughout Ms. Bourgeois's work. In 1974, she created an almost theatrical installation piece titled "The Destruction of the Father." Illuminated with a macabre red light -- the artist's signature color -- its fleshy forms of latex and plaster suggest a man's dismembered body, laid out on the dinner table.

In a 2006 review of an exhibition of Ms. Bourgeois's work, Washington Post art critic Paul Richard called her "the queen of nerves rubbed raw." If her art seemed at times like a form of therapy, it was one for which the artist never sought closure.

In 1982, on the occasion of her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art -- the first at the New York museum dedicated to a woman -- Ms. Bourgeois explained the role of memory in her art, and what might have seemed to some as compulsive licking of old wounds: "Every day you have to abandon your past or accept it," she wrote in Artforum magazine, "and then if you cannot accept it you become a sculptor."

Unable to get to her studio toward the end of her life, and too frail to make sculpture, the artist continued to paint watercolors in her New York City home well into her late 90s. She was, in the words of Molly Donovan, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery, "indefatigable."

Born in Paris on Christmas Day, 1911, Louise Bourgeois showed artistic talent at an early age. As an 11-year-old, she would assist in the family's tapestry restoration business, sketching designs for missing pieces of textile.

After studying mathematics at the Sorbonne, she took up studio arts, attending classes in the 1930s at the ateliers of such painters as Fernand Léger.

'A runaway girl'

In 1938, she married Robert Goldwater, a leading American art critic and historian who took his bride to New York later that year and introduced her to the power players of Manhattan's art scene: prominent collectors such as Peggy Guggenheim; art dealer Leo Castelli; painters Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning; and sculptor Louise Nevelson.

Ms. Bourgeois continued her studies at the Art Students League, dividing her time at home between a conventional and bohemian lifestyle: raising three sons and, in her spare time, making art on the roof of her apartment building.

"I was a runaway girl who escaped by marrying an American art historian," Ms. Bourgeois told an interviewer in 2007. "Had I remained in Paris, I'm not sure I would have even been an artist."

Her husband died in 1973, and their son Michel Goldwater died in 1990. Survivors include two sons, Jean-Louis Bourgeois of Manhattan and Alain Bourgeois of Brooklyn, N.Y.; two grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Ms. Bourgeois had her first New York solo exhibition in 1945. She showed 12 paintings. Four years later, she was give her first sculpture show at the Peridot Gallery, where she exhibited a series of totemic abstract pillars. She became a U.S. citizen in 1955.

Institutional recognition came slowly. In 1956, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York acquired her smallish, table-size cluster of primitive, podlike wooden forms. But it was not until the late 1970s that others began to take notice, and on a grander scale.

Ms. Bourgeois's first commission of public sculpture came in 1978, with an outdoor array of steel cylinders whose polished faces reflected the sun, on the plaza of a Manchester, N.H., federal building. Her 1980 acquisition of a large studio building in Brooklyn would allow a huge leap in scale for the artist's work.

She would eventually cement her reputation as the world's preeminent female sculptor, with such honors as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Washington-based International Sculpture Center in 1991.

Over the years, Ms. Bourgeois made a name for herself among art-world insiders for a series of Sunday "salons" that she hosted in her studio. Beginning in the 1970s, and running for more than 30 years, the artist would open her studio once a week to other artists for a few hours of conversation and critique.

According to the National Gallery's Donovan, such graciousness and rare accessibility from someone so famous was extraordinary -- not to mention a large part of the artist's legacy. "It's very powerful," said Donovan, "for a young artist to receive words of encouragement from someone of her stature."

As late as 2008, Ms. Bourgeois had been working on a powerful, but lesser-known series of cagelike architectural structures that she called cells. Several were included in a 2009 retrospective at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, containing what curator Valerie Fletcher called "intense yet oblique psychological and emotional references": old clothing, a model of the artist's childhood home, a guillotine. Some have yet to be shown anywhere.

It's an "amazing" body of work, said Fletcher, who thinks the artist's true legacy won't be found in a generation of sculptors whose art resembles Ms. Bourgeois's, but in a generation whose art doesn't look like anything that came before it. No one tries to imitate Ms. Bourgeois. That, Fletcher said, may be sincerest form of flattery.

Ms. Bourgeois saw no need to promote her legacy, telling an interviewer, "I don't need to be boosted by history. I have made history in spite of myself. I am just another stone in the wall."

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