MEMORY BUILDING; Hirshorn Reveals Architectural Slant of Nonagenarian's Autobiographical Sculpture

Article excerpt

Byline: Deborah K. Dietsch , THE WASHINGTON TIMES

French-born artist Louise Bourgeois has built a career on working through her psychic pain and anger. She reconstructs symbols of her inner demons in order to exorcise them.

This ongoing conflict resolution has resulted in sculpture both repulsive and enticing, as evident in the well-paced retrospective of the artist's work in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

From fabric-encased figures to room-sized installations, the 107 pieces in the six-decade survey are wildly disparate but united by a daring exploration of materials, imagery and emotions.

Nearly every piece is rooted in Ms. Bourgeois' personal story, particularly her childhood traumas. Raised in France, she helped care for her chronically ill mother while her father carried on a long-term affair with the family's English governess. Her parents ran a tapestry restoration business where she learned to draw and sew.

In 1938, she married Robert Goldwater, an American art historian, and the two settled in New York. She continued to draw and sculpt in the surrealist style, which was fashionable at the time, and came to be influenced by feminism and her study of psychology. Her quirky, fetishistic art differed from the impersonal abstraction of the male-dominated art establishment and only came to be appreciated in the late 1970s when she was in her 60s.

Understanding Ms. Bourgeois' biography enriches the experience of viewing her eclectic art, which can be opaque in its layers of personal references. Aiding the viewer are informative wall texts, family photos and a short film featuring the artist's commentary on her work.

Organized by London's Tate Modern and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the touring exhibition makes its last stop at the Hirshhorn. It has been reconfigured to include five sculptures not seen at the previous venues, including pieces from the Hirshhorn's collection.

Those visitors familiar with Ms. Bourgeois' signature spiders will find the creatures play only a tiny role within her expansive career. More pervasive is her intense interest in architecture as an expression of confinement, refuge and entrapment.

This preoccupation begins with a series from the late 1940s titled Femme Maison (literally woman home ). Substituting houses for the heads of female bodies, the paintings symbolize the once primary role of women as housewives, as well as the artist's view of the home as a place in which to explore her ideas.

Around the same time, Ms. Bourgeois completed a series of prints depicting skeletal towers alongside texts she had written. These stories of disappointment, some unintentionally humorous, suggest people are isolated from one another much like the disjointed, inaccessible buildings in the illustrations.

Continuing this link between people and architecture are the Personages, painted wood totems made by the artist between 1945 and 1955 on the roof of her Manhattan apartment building. The tall, thin pilings recall human figures - the artist saw them as surrogates for friends and family left behind in France - as well as the skyscrapers of her adopted city.

The culmination of the series is a sculpture from the Hirshhorn's collection, The Blind Leading the Blind (perhaps named for Ms. Bourgeois' self-directed art). Its free-standing assembly of posts and lintels suggests an arcade or a large table, the kind of abstracted utilitarianism now embraced by sculptors like Martin Puryear.

According to the exhibition catalog, the 1947-49 piece allowed Ms. Bourgeois to re-enact her childhood practice of hiding under the dinner table during family squabbles. Its tapered legs may be a reference to the stiltlike supports used by her friend, French architect Le Corbusier. Whatever the interpretation, the bold work reveals the artist's growing confidence in the medium of sculpture. …