CLAD IN A LUXURIOUS MONKEY-FUR COAT, a sculpture tucked firmly under her arm, Louise Bourgeois boldly confronts the camera with a mischievous grin. Shot in 1982, Robert Mapplethorpe's image has become iconic. Perhaps lesser known is its checkered history. The portrait, commissioned by Robert Miller (whose gallery represented both artists), would become the frontispiece to the catalogue for Bourgeois's first retrospective, scheduled to open at New York's Museum of Modern Art in November of that year. Feeling anxious about the photo shoot, Bourgeois decided to wear one of her favorite pieces of clothing and to bring with her Fillette, 1968, the enormous latex phallus she referred to familiarly as her "doll." The image chosen for the publication, revealing the artist as confident, provocative, and alluring in equal parts, betrayed a dazzling performance--not least because it came at a moment when so much was at stake for her professionally: Bourgeois was seventy-two years old at the time of her first exposure before a wide public, and this debut was to take place within the portals of the most esteemed of museums of modern and contemporary art, an institution that had only once before accorded a living female artist a retrospective.
The exhibition, organized by Deborah Wye (who recently retired as MOMA'S chief curator of prints and illustrated books), launched what was to become an extraordinary career over the next three decades. Initially, Mapplethorpe's photograph fared less well. Cropped into a decorous head shot in the catalogue, it offered an uncharacteristic--and ultimately misleading--image of the artist. In its truncated form, Bourgeois's demeanor reads, paradoxically, as quite conventional: She seems to conform to the stereotype of the female subject who, when being photographed, automatically adopts a seductive smile.
Mapplethorpe's original version came vividly to mind one summer morning a decade or so ago after an unexpected encounter with Bourgeois herself. Walking down the Chelsea block on which the artist lived, I saw her standing in front of her stoop, watering the tree on the sidewalk. When I greeted her, she ignored me and kept on watering. Thinking that she must not have recognized me, I started to speak again, only to be interrupted. Shielding her face with her free hand, she muttered something and then abruptly turned away. Though I only half-caught the words, the message was clear: Since she was not made-up, she was not ready to receive me (or, presumably, anyone else).
This encounter has remained among the strongest of my memories of Louise (who died on May 31, at the age of ninety-eight), partly because it suggests how keen was her sense that participating in the world, whether personally or professionally--as an individual or as an artist--involved a degree of self-construction. The expression "putting a good face on it" doesn't serve here: What was at stake was a more fundamental act of self-presentation, something that lay at the heart of Bourgeois's aesthetic and practice across the span of some seven decades. …