A lot of nonsense is being written about Louise Bourgeois, whose life traversed the century of Modernism while her work made its most emphatic mark on the postmodern era of a radical expansion and complexity in the aesthetic field. 'Spiderwoman', 'mother of confessional art'--such tag-lines following the death of Bourgeois trivialise one of the major artists of the 20th century in an almost stereotypical fashion. I had hoped that over four decades of feminist criticism would at least have deflected such banalities in the case of such a daringly creative figure.
Born in 1911, Louise Bourgeois would have been 99 on 25 December 2010. She outlived Pablo Picasso, who was 92 when he died. Like Picasso, however, Bourgeois straddled the century of Modernism, being formed as an artist when the surrealists were first making their mark in the 1920s and 30s and dying in the first decade of the 21st century, when the deeper significance of Surrealism has been so productively reassessed with our interest in sexuality, the body, the uncanny, the fantasmatic. Like Picasso, Bourgeois forged a union of material and formal processes with intense subjective necessity. Neither was merely autobiographical. Picasso was obsessed and troubled by sexuality and made some of his greatest works in the daring encounter with both fear and desire. So did Duchamp. So did Bourgeois.
Emerging as an artist amid misogynist and sexist modernists who did not acknowledge their feminine peers (in museums or lifestyles), Bourgeois was, however, always admired by discerning women. Her work was exhibited by Peggy Guggenheim when she arrived in New York in 1942 and again during the 1960s by Lucy Lippard as she developed a specifically feminist criticism that could recognise what women had been doing both within Modernism and beyond it. Brilliantly challenging sculptural form and materiality alongside Eva Hesse, Alina Szapocznikow, Lynda Benglis, Lee Bontecou and many others, Bourgeois's work appeared to me when I first encountered it in the early 1970s--as deeply shocking in its forthright sexiness, its wicked wit, its skilfully crafted and disturbingly erotic forms that never settled into known imagery. When I later met a much more elderly and delicate Bourgeois in the 1990s, the tiny frame and the twinkling eyes sometimes darkened with anxiety before a stranger and a probably predatory art historian at that contrasted with my imaginary image of the producer of her earlier marble and latex works, or the surrealist femme-maison drawings. We bonded, however, over a shared interest in the prolonged effects of early maternal bereavement and the idea of life-long mourning. This led me to write about her great spider work: rather than being some symbolisation of her mother--a reductive reading--I argued that the architectural sculpture rich with mythology invoked the missing maternal. Maman! is not a title, but a call. It speaks the sounds of subjectivity.
A brilliant mathematician and a serious student of Kleinian and Freudian psychoanalysis in the 1960s, Bourgeois pitted herself against the major artistic intellects of the 20th century like Duchamp, who also combined the insights of psychoanalysis with the deconstructive impulse vis-a-vis any residual pomposity in art. Far from being confessional or subjective in her work, Bourgeois was a true modernist in articulating the endlessly fascinating poiesis of our psychic lives with the uncanniness of found materials sometimes combined with exquisitely carved marble, or more recently with sewn and fabricated soft objects, as well as the detritus of the city. …