"We Bring Our Lares with Us": Bodies and Domiciles in the Sculpture of Louise Bourgeois

Article excerpt

Over the last sixty years, the persistence of two themes - the body and the home - within the oeuvre of Louise Bourgeois is remarkable. ' The intertwining of the two, moreover, has occurred repeatedly and extends back to her earliest major series in two dimensions, the Femme Maison paintings of the late 1940s. But it is not until the 1960s that a more abstract, elliptical treatment of the conflation of body and home begins to take hold. In particular, the subject of this paper is the connection of these themes, as forged through a key series of plaster and latex works executed between i960 and 1963, in which Bourgeois sets up an interrelated exploration of the stakes of the body and home treated as one.

Bourgeois began executing works in these materials in the very early 1960s and exhibited a handful of them in an exhibition at the Stable Gallery in 1964, her only solo sculpture show of the 1960s. Unlike her early three-dimensional works, wood sculptures produced on a figurai scale and placed directly on the floor in a proto-environmental fashion, most of these conformed to the traditional precepts of indoor sculpture: they were of an appropriate table-top size and were placed on plinths. The sharp contrast in scale, as well as in form and material, was not lost on critics, who viewed the change with perplexity and some dismay. Daniel Robbins wrote: "It was as if an old acquaintance once darkly lean, elegant and aloof, had come back from a long journey transformed: fleshy, chalky, round and organic . . . [with] the capacity to quiver and ooze. . . . The effect of this exhibition was not ingratiating for the work was powerful but rather repellent."' Robbins's analysis of die simultaneous sense of attraction and repulsion conveyed in the show characterized the main tension that these works seemed to embody. In part this was due to the dramatic visual changes to which he referred. The decisions to adopt a reduced scale and create sculptures seemingly able to "quiver and ooze" were unusual ones to make, given the previous success that Bourgeois had won from the exhibition of the wood personages the decade before.5 In addition, what appeared as a move away from the environmental format that Bourgeois had adopted in her early work was oddly timed; it had taken until the early 1960s for environments to catch on.

Instead of mimicking the scale of the spectator, this body of work was almost uniformly small, lumpy, and rather informe. Most were formally "low," primitive, and without clear reference to either the human body or any other form, figurai, geometric, or otherwise.4 At best, critics were disturbed by the works; at worst, they were indifferent. That the works received any attention in the [960S was itself a mark of Bourgeois's stamre; they were reviewed by every major American art publication when exhibited. Yet despite her reputation, critics who were most dismissive of the work attributed the problem to Bourgeois in pointed and uncommon ways; her execution, talent, and momentum were all called into question. ? The Arts Magazine critic, for instance, claimed that the works' "melancholy" appearance gave the impression that "the sculptor hadn't felt like working."6 But there was something disingenuous in the claims, which ultimately seemed to say more about the works' posture than the artist.

A notable review by Michael Fried confirmed Bourgeois's status while making explicit the terms of the exhibition's inefficiency. It provided a significant catalogue of metaphors for the low states in which the work rested - entrails. excrement, tentacles; the sum amounts to a list of amorphous organic things, which exhibit all manner of primitive states of existence. To these Fried collectively ascribed a vocabulary that implied the inevitabihty of the sculptures' failure.7 The forms, he claimed, appeared empty and heavy, inert and moving at the same time, attempting resolution without achieving it. Their abstraction compounded the problem, especially since Bourgeois's work lacked the predominant formal attributes of contemporary abstract sculpture. …