Interview by Richard D. Marshall
Images by Mary Ellen Mark
Client: Whitewall Magazine
(25 December 1911 – 31 May 2010), was a renowned French-American artist and sculptor, best known for her contributions to both modern and contemporary art, and for her spider structures. Though her works are abstract, they are suggestive of the human figure and express themes of betrayal, anxiety, and loneliness. Her work was wholly autobiographical, inspired by her childhood trauma of discovering that her English governess was also her father’s mistress. The New York Times said that her work “shared a set of repeated themes, centered on the human body and its need for nurture and protection in a frightening world.” In 2011 one of her Spider works sold for $10.7 million, a new record price for the artist at auction, and the highest price paid for a work by a woman. She is recognized today as the founder of confessional art.
Richard D. Marshall
is an independent curator, art consultant, and art historian based in New York City. He was formerly Curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, where he organized numerous Biennial Exhibitions of contemporary art, and many seminal one-artist and group exhibitions. Marshall is Curator of the Lever House Art Collection, New York.
RICHARD MARSHALL: Louise, I would like to discuss two separate, but related, periods of your life — your early years in New York during the 1940s, and the artwork you have produced during the first seven years of the 21st century.
You moved to New York from Paris after your marriage to American art historian Robert Goldwater in 1938. What were your initial impressions of America and, specifically, New York City?
LOUISE BOURGEOIS: I thought New York was beautiful, a cruel beauty in its blue sky, white light, and skyscrapers. I felt lonely and stimulated.
RM: Was use of the English language complicated?
LB: I was taught English in school. My father thought it was important for me, as he wanted me to continue in the family business of tapestries.
RM: Did you set up your own studio?
LB: It was not possible, as we lived in Robert’s small apartment.
RM: By 1941 you had three young sons, a busy and influential husband, a home, and your own art studies? How did you manage?
LB: Given the family setup, I worked on printmaking and painting. It was only when I encountered the roof of the building where we lived that I was able to concentrate on sculpture.
RM: Between 1945 and 1949 you had your first individual exhibitions of paintings, prints, and sculpture. How did the exhibitions come about?
LB: Arthur Drexler, who was an artist at the time but later became the curator of architecture and design at MoMA, offered me my first show of sculpture at the Peridot Gallery in 1949.
RM: What did the artworks express?
LB: I re-created all the people that I had left behind in France. This was a period of both homesickness and mourning. It was an environmental installation where the viewer would enter the room and circulate among these presences. They had no bases and came directly up from the floor. They all came to a point and were fragile, which is the way I felt.
RM: What was the critical and financial response?
LB: The response was almost nothing, but artists like Duchamp and others were intrigued. It was at my second show of sculpture at the Peridot Gallery in 1950 that Alfred Barr acquired Sleeping Figure for The Museum of Modern Art.
RM: You have lived in the same home on West 20th Street for almost 45 years. What does it mean to you? It is expressed in your art?
LB: The house on West 20th Street is a friendly refuge. It is like one of my “Lairs” or large “Cells.” It has many doors and staircases, so you can come and go. The house is very functional.
RM: Because you no longer visit your Brooklyn studio, how do you organize your days?
LB: I had to give up the Brooklyn studio, as the area was being redeveloped. Now I work in my brownstone, usually working on sculpture in the morning and drawings or prints in the afternoon.
RM: Do you continue to review younger artists’ work at your home on Sunday? What is the purpose of these meetings?
LB: I organized my Sunday salons as a way of keeping in touch with mostly younger artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and poets.
RM: A number of works completed during the 1960s through the 1990s are concerned with memories of your childhood, and the fear and anxiety elicited by the configuration of “the father, the mother, the mistress, and the children.”
“My work is not about memories, but rather about problems and difficulties in the present”
LB: My work deals with problems that I encounter with other people. I would like people to understand and like me, which is not an easy thing to achieve. My work is not about memories, but rather about problems and difficulties in the present. My work is my psychoanalysis and like psychoanalysis, you must go back and find the source of these feelings, good and bad, in order to understand how they are operating today and affecting the way you feel and live. In my case, there was a lot of resentment against my father in terms of his behavior and his demands upon me. There is an intense desire to please him. I had antagonistic feelings toward my father or, for that matter, any father figure. On a psychological level, I was being pulled apart in two directions, and I had this fear of falling down. There was a tremendous desire to please and a tremendous desire to “cut” everything in sight. Eventually the anger also turns in on the self and leads to depression.
RM: Works completed since the early 2000s suggest a more personal reference to your own adult life, your children, and your role as a wife and mother, rather than a daughter. Is this accurate?
“The most important person in my life was my mother”
LB: The most important person in my life was my mother. My “Spiders” are an ode to her. I have the responsibility for taking care of my sons. So when we talk about the mother we are oscillating back and forth in time. I miss my mother. I am a mother. I am looking for a mother.
RM: You made a number of “Couples” sculptures in 2000 to 2001. Each consists of two intertwined figures made of sewn fabric and suspended in vitrines. Who are the couples and why are they suspended?
“In all my work there is the fear of abandonment and separation”
LB: These are portraits of a relationship: they embrace each other, they hold onto each other, and they are tied together forever. Yet they hang by a point, which symbolizes their fragility. In all my work there is the fear of abandonment and separation.
RM: The Reticent Child is a diorama of six pink fabric figures, including a pregnant woman, a naked male, and a child. Who was the reticent child?
LB: “The reticent child” is my son Alain, who simply refused to be born. So the question for me was how much of his personality was established by his late arrival? Today Alain is very tight-lipped, secretive, and cautious. I wondered what he was afraid of or what he had to hide.
RM: Why does the male appear to be distressed or crying?
LB: He is not crying, but hiding. He is shy and afraid of something.
RM: The faces of the child being born and the birthing mother are similar. Is the mother also reticent?
LB: The mother is not reticent. I talk all the time. She is unsure of herself and how to handle the situation.
RM: You also completed a related suite of 82 double-sided drawings, titled Il Etait Réticent, mais Je l’ai Révélé. How does this connect to The Reticent Child sculpture?
LB: I am determined to make The Reticent Child out. I want to understand my son. I want him to like me and not be afraid.
RM: A few recent sculptures, Cell XI (Portrait), Cell XIV (Portrait), and Cell XXIII (Portrait), are cages that contain three-headed configurations. Do they represent a triumvirate of emotions, personalities, or fears?
LB: The multiple heads of my figures are the different sides of the same person. Conflict and ambivalence are everywhere.
RM: A 2004 drawing states, “I had a flashback of something that never existed.” What does this mean?
LB: You are presented with a feeling or a vision of something that is very vivid, and yet you have your doubts. You’re not sure of this recall.
RM: Sculptures such as Obese, Bulimic, Anorexic, and Hysterical display a fusion of both physical and psychological states. How do you achieve this balance?
LB: Our emotions affect our body. Body language is revealing. These conditions have been associated mostly with women.
RM: Among your most recent works are ambitious suites of drawings, numbering 50 to 100 sheets each. They seem to suggest a time-consuming ritual, but what is the psychological expression of the repetition, amalgamation, and massing of line, shape, and color?
LB: My drawings are about the passing of time. The repetition gives a physical quality to the mark-making. I want to bring my whole body into the process of drawing. The lines are like knitting. They are like a heartbeat. They have the rhythm of the unconscious.
Sculptures, 10/2/50–10/28/50, photo: Aaron Siskind
Louise Bourgeois with SPIDER IV, 1996, photo: Peter Bellamy