Louise Bourgeois's Retroactive Politics of Gender

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Is Louise Bourgeois's sculpture of the late forties and fifties in any way political? It's not a simple question to answer. Discussions of the politics of postwar American art have revolved mostly around the binaries of the Right (McCarthy) and the Left (Stalin), understood as a sliding scale, with Truman and Trotsky in between. As the forties skidded into the early fifties, the Stalinist and even the Trotskyist aspects of the continuum grew increasingly suspect to middle-of-the-road America. If this is the scale on which politics were measured, then one of the principal signs of Bourgeois's interest in political events is her exhibition at New York's Norlyst Gallery, in June 1945, of the documents of the French Resistance. I argue, however, that this, as well as other apparent signs of Bourgeois's interest in world politics, was not effective as such at the time and has only become effective retroactively, as the works in this show have more recently been read as statements about the politics of gender in the art world.

To memorialize the Resistance--and, as Bourgeois has noted, to assuage her guilt for not suffering through the Occupation (Bourgeois came here from France in 1938)--she curated documents france 1940-1944, art-literature-press of the french underground, with the help of Marcel Duchamp, Jimmy Ernst, Varian Fry, Amedee Ozenfant, Pierre Matisse, and others (fig. 1).(1)(Figure 1 omitted) Included were periodicals, posters, poetry, manuscripts, books, and paintings--works whose connection with the Resistance made their makers heroes. But her collection of anti-Nazi emblems is ambiguous in terms of any clear-cut position of Right versus Left. Bourgeois displayed, for instance, La Nausee, by Jean Paul Sartre, who was seen as the philosopher of the French Resistance, and who, like so many French existentialists, was on the Left.(2) Some people in the exhibition, like Louis Aragon and Picasso, were actually Communist. Picasso, whom Alfred Barr only months before had called "a heroic symbol of the Resistance Movement," had joined the Communist Party in 1944.(3)

Despite this, Bourgeois saw her show as anti-Communist. Her attitude toward world politics was more ambivalent than the simple binary of being on the Right or the Left. In a recent interview on the subject of politics, Bourgeois declared:

I see history in terms of persons. I'm more conscious of people and the quality of their mind than I am the event of the time...There is such a state where you are not for, you are not against, you are investigating. It is a much more intelligent attitude than to be committed to this and committed to that. You study, you consider, you have a scientific attitude, you do not have an emotional attitude.

Of her two trips to Moscow as a student in the thirties (at the suggestion of her teacher Paul Colin, who was a Communist) Bourgeois says: "I was attracted to Communism because it bothered my father. I was brought up on teasing, and I returned the compliment whenever I could." So she traveled to Russia in part to rebel against her father. It seems then that even though she clearly grasped the historical existence of Communism as a political philosophy, Bourgeois chose to understand it--as did others in the United States--also as a metaphor for what was negative, disagreeable, and, as such, she used it as a weapon.(4)

Such writers as Eva Cockroft, Max Kozloff, Annette Cox, Serge Guilbaut, Stephen Polcari, Cecile Whiting, and Michael Leja, however, have shown that contrary to earlier assertions, postwar art-world politics were indeed related to the politics of the larger world. But in the art world as in the larger world (as Polcari and Leja have remarked), there were politics other than those of Right and Left: those of race, age, class, gender, and sexuality. In the last thirty years, as awareness of the effects in the art world of these less obvious politics has expanded, it has become increasingly possible to speak of their relation to the politics of Right and Left. …