“Impressions of Louise Bourgeois’s “Unfolded Portrait” exhibition at MoMA.”
Louise Bourgeois’s signature seems actually to have straightened itself out in her late work. Her final watercolors, the giant To Infinities (“À l’Infini,” 2008), are marked by a neat and even hand. As she was in her nineties, working with canvas that big due to poor eyesight and other disabilities, I wonder if the work was signed for her in a gentle, looping cursive. I think of poet Bernadette Mayer, another art-mother of mine, whose disabling strokes have hindered the possibility of longhand; instead, she has a typewriter stationed in every room of her home, requiring only the mobility of 1-2 fingers at a time. She waits for memory to be collected by the eyes and stored in a mind-computer.[1.Epstein, Andrew. Attention Equals Life the Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture. Oxford University Press, 2016. Epstein cites an interview with Lisa Jarnot in a Poetry Project newsletter in which Mayer states: “I’d like computers to be able to record everything you think and see. To be like the brain, and to write that out…” Her “Memory” project approximates this desire.] Bourgeois’s earliest displayed prints and rubbings, at the brink of her motherhood, are passionately emblazoned with a frantic Louise and sometimes just a B, as if an initial, the Latin word for that first letter of a work that is bigger than the rest, often marked by spiraling tendrils. Her B almost contains a shadow within it. Often in her vertical painting pairs, the left will read “Louise” and the right: “B.” In two pieces, L.B. calls her body a building with the door (or one of many doors & windows) left open to love, pain, a gentle draft. I think about moving to Paris, where she calls the sky “susceptible” to thunderclouds. She writes about adoring New York for its blue sky and little gardens. Of blue, Bourgeois writes, “The colour blue means you have left the drabness of day-to-day reality to be transported into – not a world of fantasy … but a world of freedom where you can say what you like and what you don’t like.”1 For her, blue is the freedom of subjective assertion. For me, I prefer clouds.
Sitting bundled & cross-legged on a stone chair shaped roughly like a fist in the MoMA Sculpture Garden, I watch the fountains bubble up vertically. Verticality, says L.B., moves from passive (horizontal “fear and violence”[3.Bourgeois, Louise. “Duration and Intensité.” Duration and Intensité, Osiris, 2007, p. 8.]) to active, like rising mercury in an old thermometer. She was a great admirer of Balzac, particularly the novel Eugénie Grandet, in which she sympathized with the daughter-character of a monstrous father. I think of Balzac’s aphorisms in The Physiology of Marriage, such as: “No man should marry until he has studied anatomy and dissected at least one woman.”[4.Balzac, Honoré de. “The Physiology of Marriage.” The Physiology of Marriage, Avil, 1901, p. 93. L.B. has produced work for his house museum.] I’d like to see her giant marble spider sculpture one day in Ottawa—Maman, it’s called. I last saw her work in the wild of the DC Sculpture Garden in late May of this year. The memory of the day tastes like cool milk tea and warm coconut-lemongrass broth.
Bourgeois’s feats of motherhood made banal (within the strokes or leaves or erotics of her drawings), of “washing dishes and vegetables” (“Has the mail man come?”)[5.Bourgeois, Louise. Ode to Eugénie Grandet. Osiris, New York, 2007, Museum of Modern Art. The artwork is a plant-like etching with text accompanying the leaves on each side. The first quote is included on the left side and the second on the right.] remind me of Maureen Owen’s Zombie Notes, beginning:
“Bump through 6 AM Rookie lightness/Care & Feeding of baby & small children/Drive 150 miles to read poems/Do it with feeling!/ A Zombie!/Zombie drinks tea! Zombie writes poems!”2
L.B.’s spider cage made my heart leap, as did her fabric works. I wish I had brought with me a red crayon or spool of thread to articulate this. She writes, of the textiles, “Clothing is…an exercise of memory… It makes me explore the past… how did I feel when I wore that…”3 She loved needles and seams and mending and exorcising. I see L.B.’s verticals and bodies in the trees. Mother spider ghosts walk around like eight-footed clouds. I realize that all of her work feels like it was first planted in the ground. I’m cold for the first time in some months. A pair of sweethearts nestled in the soft chairs in front of me take an affectionate selfie that I’m undoubtedly part of.
Through the specific filter of medium, the L.B. exhibition is expansive. From a curatorial angle, one moves clockwise through a series of rooms showing work in thematic and chronological order of the artist’s life. L.B. is most known for her motif of spiders, who she considers motherly creatures in their domestic mending, protection, repetition. Her mother’s routine fabric work is alluded to by strips of carpet-like, tattered material on the cell bars of Spider (1997), the giant work at the center of the exhibit. One may recall Heidegger’s notion of memory as a “gathering of recollection” that “safely guards and keeps concealed within it that to which is not otherwise present.”[8.Mugerauer, Robert. “Originary Homecoming.” Heidegger and Homecoming: the Leitmotif in the Later Writings, University of Toronto Press, 2014, p. 279. A curious extension of the in-text citation: “Poetry wells up only from devoted thought thinking back, recollecting.”] Bourgeois’s cell stages this well; the overbearing spider serves as both protector of the cage (and its objects including a chair within) and an extension of the cage itself; bone as medium animates the body yet remembers its rot.
Using fabric, recorded audio, metal work, text, paint, various printing methods, scraping, ink, sculpture, and other tools, a type of memory or, to borrow the exhibition’s title, “Unfolded Portrait” is approximated. Bourgeois herself denied “rivalry”[9.Full quote here: https://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2013/01/09/moma-launches-louise-bourgeois-website/.] in mediums. The show wraps up with glittering, decapitated Arch of Hysteria (1993), a bronze sculpture posed & dangling in torturous backbend; as she said: “The subject of pain is the business I’m in.” A Freudian reading (confirmed by the figure’s mold himself)4 considers the seduction theory of hysteria, a dated pathology formerly applied to women in particular. Bourgeois intended for the viewer to see their own distorted face reflected in the shine. Scene.
The confluence of art material and memory is a palpable pulse moving through the space. Viewers flock to key works to parse form and significance as well as to sympathize or otherwise react, enfolding their own memory in the gallery “gathering” experience, just as Bourgeois did in reading Balzac. I’ve tried to exhume and reimagine that process here. In closing, I recommend this video of the artist peeling a tangerine.
- Bourgeois, Louise. Louise Bourgeois: Drawings and Observations. Edited by Lawrence Rinder, Bulfinch, 1999.
- Owen, Maureen. “Zombie Notes: Poems.” Zombie Notes: Poems, SUN, 1985, p. 1.
- Quote included at the bottom of this webpage: https://www.moma.org/explore/collection/lb/themes/fabric_works.
- Explication of process in this audio: https://www.moma.org/audio/playlist/42/681.