Louise Bourgeois

By Rimanelli, David | Artforum International, September 1994 | Go to article overview
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Louise Bourgeois

Rimanelli, David, Artforum International


What are the main currents of contemporary art? And what artists serve as the most visible and influential conduits for these currents? These are the questions raised by the Brooklyn Museum's recent exhibition "Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory, Works 1982-1993." As a retrospective, albeit a partial one the show took Bourgeois' stature as a fait accompli. But the reasons for Bourgeois' significance given by the show's curator and selected catalogue essayists were often at odds with the evidence of the art--what we saw and what we were told to see in Bourgeois' art didn't match up.

Curator Charlotta Kotik's catalogue essay begins perspicuously: "However intricate the elaborate construct of the art world may be at any given moment, its existence and renewal depend on a select number of sources. These sources, sometimes obscured by extraneous concerns, often take a long time to be identified. Yet, once recognized, their creative energy penetrates our consciousness and permanently marks our perception of the times." Kotik then goes on to position Bourgeois as a forerunner--one of that select number of obscured sources, it would seem--for the art world's current infatuation with installations and the thematics of the body. She suggests a rending of the veil a scene of recognition.

Yet Kotik relates Bourgeois' biography, and connects it to the development of her art, without really trying to put the work in historical perspective and suggest what its own sources might be. We learn, for example, that Bourgeois, who arrived in New York from France in 1938, befriended "a number of expatriate Surrealist artists during the Second World War," but never who they were or what, if any, influence they might have exerted on her art. Kotik also alludes to Bourgeois' connections with the New York School, Minimalism, and Process art but merely within the space of a single sentence. "She readily comprehended all," Kotik writes, "but accepted none. Fiercely independent, she charted her own territory instead, traveling a solitary path and sustaining the isolation that so frequently attends such a road." Fierce independence, solitude, refusal the road less traveled: it all sounds very romantic, and rather less like art history than a teenage mash note.

And what did we see in "The Locus of Memory"? A heterogeneous collection of artworks, some of them discrete objects, others multipart installations. The formal variety of Bourgeois' work is sufficient to suggest it was made by more than one artist, yet the persistence of certain motifs, and an overarching mood pitched between longing and dread, reinforces the impression of a signature style. The imagery is quite consistent: on the one hand we have abstract-ish biomorphs suggestive of breasts, penises, and vaginas; on the other, straightforwardly representational renderings of eyes and ears, or of disembodied limbs. The settings created by the installations are drab and claustrophobic, somehow evocative of unwilling, unhappy confinement. As the title of the exhibition suggested, the works tend to point backward to an irretrievable yet inescapable past, to childhood sexuality and familial trauma. Haunted interiors, sexual indeterminacy, the logic of dreams: surely these thematic and figurative topoi have an identifiable art-historical subsoil--in Surrealism. Or are we to believe that Bourgeois created them out of thin air?

Even so, Kotik's essay is on the whole the least troublesome of the lot. Terrie Sultan's text is even less helpful in situating Bourgeois historically. "Louise Bourgeois' aesthetic stands as a counterproposal to the optimistic and nihilistic approaches that remain the hallmarks of Modernism at the end of the twentieth century," Sultan grandiosely begins. Then, in a single magisterially turgid sentence, she proceeds to sunder Bourgeois not only from the "misogynistic antihumanism" of Surrealism, but also from Cubism, Minimalism, an appropriation art.

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