A FRIEND RECENTLY told me of her visit to one of Louise Bourgeois's salons a few years ago. Another guest had gifted Bourgeois a box of bonbons, which the Grande Dame had been enthusiastically sampling, covering herself and all she touched with chocolate in the process. My friend had taken a painting to show--a small gouache requiring close inspection--and suddenly Bourgeois made a grab for close inspection--and suddenly Bourgeois made a grab for it. Facing the prospect of having her work amended with cocoa powder, my friend demurred, and finally a third party was recruited to hold the piece before Bourgeois's eyes. But for the rest of the afternoon, no one would be entirely safe from Bourgeois's caked brown fingers.
This is an anecdote that presents Bourgeois as I have always imagined her--taking hold of the world with hands dripping in luxury and squalor. She is the one who, hair unkempt, would parade through the streets of New York in the latex regalia of a dozen tits. She is the one who, in photographs, would direct her affectionate gaze down to her mutating sculpture as if it were a favorite pet. She is the one who would use a material as noble as marble, but only to sculpt and polish the stuff so that it might be easier for someone to fuck. Yes, I have always thought, she is in it, in everything, shamelessly relishing bodies and all their sloppy, ridiculous protruberances, their hooded members poking through silken mucus. This is the Louise Bourgeois who has inspired generations of artists (many of them women) who see in her wicked smile a beacon that leads toward artmaking at its most gorgeous and cruel.
Bourgeois is a towering figure who made herself so through acts and displays of intimacy: small sculptures demanding close, private looks; large sculptures that dwarf audiences, putting them in the place of children. Yet this play with scale necessarily presents a problem for installation, particularly in the vast spaces and compartmentalized ramps of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Upon entering the museum, one could barely see two interlocked spiders wrestling at a distance, obscured by milling crowds and backlight from the window. The only other pieces in the rotunda were the artist's Untitled aluminum coils, 2004--an erudite choice, though not terribly sensitive to the operations of scale in her work. Reminiscent of the hanging Les Bienuenus (The Welcoming), pieces Bourgeois made for the park of Choisy-le-Roi in France in 1995, the vaguely excremental series of loops extended a perverse welcome to the museum visitor. Because the coils are each about the height of a person, however, they seemed dainty in the central space, like silver earrings dangling beside a concave cheek.
Some of the artist's pieces likewise suffered the disadvantage that sculpture can face in the Guggenheim: The ramp often does not leave enough room for objects to beplaced out among viewers with ease, so works are pushed against the walls, to be looked at from a frontal position rather than engaged through circumambulation. Cumul I, 1969, for example, needs to be in an open gallery space in order for us to perceive its striking ambiguity of scale. While Minimalist pieces (particularly those of Robert Morris) tend to operate in a literal size that hovers between that of architecture and traditional sculpture, relying upon a neutral gestalt to throw perceptual and contextual awareness back upon the viewer, Cumul I harnesses contradictory representational cues in order to play with scale. More lateral than vertical, it can read like a landscape, so the forms bubbling up seem like craters rendered in something less than actual size. Yet the sculpture's biomorphism, as well as its persistent intrusion into the viewer's space, nevertheless encourages one to compare Cumul I to the scale of the human body, in which case the rising tumescent shapes seem bigger than anything a person could muster. …