Alone and Together
For us, Louise Bourgeois is one of the most significant artists of the past century.
Her highly personal works, which touch on central issues for everyone regardless of culture, are human, timeless and universal. It has therefore been particularly interesting for us to show this exhibition both in Beijing and Copenhagen. The exhibition Alone and Together is curated by Jerry Gorovoy, Louise Bourgeois’ personal assistant, friend and life companion for 30 years.
With his exceptional, highly personal insight into Louise Bourgeois’ oeuvre, Jerry Gorovoy has curated a compact, unique exhibition that presents small, extremely tactile works as well as large sculptures which grandiosely take possession of the surrounding space. The works deal thematically with birth, growing up, family and motherhood – themes that Louise Bourgeois has explored for decades. Biographical material has always been of great importance to Bourgeois. Her works take their point of departure from the emotions that arise in an individual’s most meaningful relationships – parents, children and partners – and thus revolve around themes of love, rejection and abandonment.
These essential relations are also reflected in the exhibition’s title, Alone and Together. The feelings of loneliness and togetherness point to a complex pair of opposites, for can one be together but also alone? We all aspire to individuality as well as to membership of the collectivity. This issue is a very significant one in Bourgeois’ oeuvre – and points to, among other things, the existential choices that come with partnership as well as motherhood. The intimacy in the relationship with the Other – parent, partner or child – is both life-giving and consuming. Individuality is defined in relation to the Other, but with this comes the risk of losing one’s identity.
Louise Bourgeois has made several works showing two persons entangled, individuals forever coupled in a spiral, unable to free themselves from each other. This feeling is the essence of the hanging sculpture The Couple:
“The figures in the hanging ”Couple” hold onto each other. Nothing will separate them. It is a precarious and fragile state. That’s expressed by the hanging on a thread. Despite all our handicaps, we hold onto each other. It is really the Other that interests me. It is an optimistic view. Locked together, they spin for eternity.” 1
Louise Bourgeois shows how each of us contains several persons at once, and asks questions such as “How do we balance unity/togetherness with existential loneliness/separation?” and “How do we manage the dialectic between pain and enjoyment?” These polarities are at the core of Bourgeois’ concerns.
One of Louise Bourgeois’ signature motifs is the spider. It appeared in two drawings as early as 1947. To her the spider has a positive symbolic value as protector and repairer. Since then she has modelled various spiders: smaller ones and the big Maman – where the viewer can actually stand underneath it and even feel threatened by it. About the spider Louise Bourgeois has explained:
“I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs it.”2 And “… my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and useful as a spider. She could also defend herself …”3
For many people the spider is connected with fear – some even suffer from arachnophobia, but that was not the case with Louise Bourgeois. For many Chinese too, as we have learned during the exhibition period in Beijing, spiders are associated with luck. Like the spider who builds her web, Louise Bourgeois encourages us, through her work, to rebuild our lives, our world.
Louise Bourgeois was late in coming to her major international breakthrough. It was not until after her retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1982 that her works were properly inscribed in art history. Since then her work has been shown and acknowledged in the finest museums and art institutions all over the world.
Faurschou Foundation is grateful for the chance to give the Chinese art public the opportunity to enjoy this first retrospective exhibition in China of Louise Bourgeois’ works – and to show it to the public in Copenhagen, where her work is already well known and loved. Maman, which is the biggest of the spider sculptures that Louise Bourgeois has made, occupied the square Nytorv in Copenhagen back in 2003. On the public square, the passers-by could look at this both fearsome and beautiful sculpture. In Denmark, we can also celebrate the tenth anniversary of Louise Bourgeois’ exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.
With the Award of Art China (AAC award), China gave Louise Bourgeois’ Alone and Together exhibition its prize as “the most influential overseas artist in China” of the year. The prize consolidates the importance that Bourgeois enjoyed and still enjoys as an artist. We are pleased to be able to present her art to a Chinese as well as a Danish public, and are profoundly grateful to Jerry Gorovoy for this.
Jerry Gorovoy was of tremendous importance to – and had a very close relationship with – Louise Bourgeois, who described him as a lifesaver:
“When you are at the bottom of the well, you look around and you say, who is going to get me out? In this case, Jerry comes and he presents a rope, and I hook myself on the rope and he pulls me out. You see I can conceive of a way of getting out of the well. I’m not drowning. I’m just waiting for somebody.”4
Jerry – you are the best lifesaver and “caretaker” one could ever wish for – and we are so happy that you have made this exhibition possible for us.
Besides Jerry Gorovoy, our great thanks must also go to Wendy Williams, and to The Easton Foundation and The Louise Bourgeois Trust, who have been extremely kind and lent us works for the exhibition, just as our friends at Cheim & Read, especially Howard with his great engagement, have been helpful in every respect. In addition, great thanks to Louise Bourgeois Studio and our team of staff both in Beijing and Copenhagen, who have ensured that Louise Bourgeois – Alone and Together has become a reality.
1 Louise Bourgeois, statement, March 8, 2002
2 Interview with Cecilia Blomberg, October 16, 1998
3 Text for Ode À Ma Mère, 1995
4 Interview with Lawrence Rinder, May 9, 1995
Louise Bourgeois: Shaping the Subtle Spirit
(Translated by Cindy M. Carter)
In the process of transforming autobiography into art, Louise Bourgeois describes the shape of the subtle spirit, the hidden mysteries of the human soul. Her creations suggest the offspring of some genetic coupling gone awry, creatures modeled on parts of the female anatomy, in which the parts have been distorted, dislocated, deformed, or subjected to repeated replication.
Although Bourgeois assimilates Western concepts of Surrealism, Symbolism and modern psychoanalysis into her work, her sensibility at times seems closer to Eastern animism, the notion that all living beings are imbued with a spirit, that there is some inherent spirit animating all living things. Her sculptures evoke a parade of fantastic supernatural beings, mysterious fetishes, some hidden occult parasite on a corporeal body of fragmented or misshapen flesh—a neck with three heads, a stone trough with breasts, a four-breasted headless pink torso, two legless bodies fused together end to end, and an enormous, soft slithering creature.
Judging from their physical form, all of these creatures appear to be in the throes of suffering. Their peculiar shapes make it seem as if they came into this world half-formed, partial or incomplete, afflicted by some unspeakable anxiety or dread. In Eastern mythology and artistic tradition, peculiarly shaped objects or living things are seen as spiritual embodiments, aesthetic symbols of a life force that transcends space and time. In this respect, Bourgeois is thoroughly modernist, for her peculiarly shaped creations make reference to the psychoanalytical “division of mind” and Weltschmerz, the awareness that life is necessarily incomplete, fragmentary, and fraught with psychological fragility and malaise.
For Bourgeois, there is a clear referential relationship between art and autobiography. She rarely strays beyond the narrow biographical confines of self and family, and nearly all of her subject matter derives from the subtle spiritual connections between the artist and her parents, husband, and children. Bourgeois takes these relationships and transforms them into symbolic allegories. Her most representative work, Maman, is no mere portrait of the artist’s mother; it is an enormous spider whose vast form defines a psychological space symbolizing the artist’s desire to be encircled by her mother.
Maman reflects a contradictory inner desire: to enjoy one’s solitude and silence, while also looking forward to a more intimate form of coexistence with the mother figure.
When Louise Bourgeois transforms autobiography into art, she is careful to eliminate specific historical references, thus allowing her work to stand as abstract allegory divorced from the tethers of immediate reality. In this way, she blurs the boundaries between Western modernist symbolism and Eastern animism, and between Buddhist concepts of nothingness/non-being and Western modernist notions of nothingness/nihilism. This is particularly true of the void suggested by the enormous spidery figure of Maman, which represents not so much emptiness or nihilism, but a very Asiatic desire for maternal intimacy.
Louise Bourgeois: Alone and Together
The life and work of Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) – one of the most celebrated artists of our time – is a monument to the paradoxical nature of being in the world. The impetus of her lifelong creative and personal trajectory has been described as the need to “alleviate a core experience of abandonment”1 by her longtime assistant, companion and “found family” Jerry Gorovoy, who has curated her first retrospective in China, Louise Bourgeois: Alone and Together, at the Faurschou Foundation in Beijing.
Spanning Bourgeois’ seven decades of practice, the exhibition includes work from across her diverse oeuvre: from her sensuous bronze and marble works to hanging aluminum sculptures; from her Cell installations to her soft sculpture works; from her iconic spider sculptures to the evocative series of “feathery” gouache diptychs on paper for which the exhibition is titled. With a body of work that reveals the central themes and rhythms of her autobiographical works, Gorovoy offers China an unprecedented chance to be touched by the reparative, human power of Bourgeois’ art.
A fiercely intelligent, well-read artist, for whom the making of art was as much a means of “being in the world” as a vocation, Bourgeois drew heavily on psychoanalytic thought. Performing uncanny exorcisms with her creations, she navigated the labyrinths of her past and her unconscious. Through the spinning of metonymical visual narratives, Bourgeois’ work forms a web of stories about her life. These are simultaneously stories about the paradoxes of the human condition and served as a crucible in which a Self – straining towards the nearly impossible yet existentially necessary act of connecting with Others – could be forged out of alienation and personal trauma.
Born in Paris in 1911 to a father who sold and a mother who restored and repaired medieval and renaissance tapestries, Bourgeois’ understanding of herself was formed in a complex relationship to her family. Bourgeois’ highly charged, conflicted relationship with her father, whom she both loved and resented, permeated her adolescence with family trauma and left its traces on her art. Her father betrayed the family, and pressured young Louise to be someone she was not. In order to become who she needed to be, she had to reject and negate him.
This symbolic loss of her father was compounded by the untimely death of her passive but nurturing mother in 1932, following a long illness, during which Bourgeois cared for her in a poignant reversal of roles.
Trauma, rage, and retribution against her father would fuel the making of many artworks throughout a significant part of Bourgeois’ life. However, her later works were increasingly informed by a coming to terms with the loss of her mother and the reclamation of a generative, maternal power. Through the making of artworks, she found an inner clarity and strength to make reparations (to others and to herself) for what she had suffered and lost. Finding herself through her art took place, in part, along the axes of her “bad father” and “good mother.” Defining herself required negotiating her own place somewhere between the two.
Later in life, when Louise Bourgeois had left her mark deep upon subsequent generations, and risen to a position of prominence in the art world paralleled by few artists of her time, male or female, some would wryly claim her as contemporary art’s very own “bad enough mother” – an artist who was “bad enough” to challenge and transgress the taboos and repressive order of society, yet maternal enough to engender new forms of growth and healing through her artwork’s regenerative power. As the first woman to have a retrospective at New York´s Museum of Modern Art (in 1982), Bourgeois helped open the way for a new generation of marginalized artists to claim their places in the art world.
At the time her mother died, however, Bourgeois was still an emotionally volatile, vulnerable young woman seeking her way in the world. She enrolled at the Sorbonne to study Mathematics, hoping its rationality and order could still the tumult inside her caused by her family dramas. When she failed to find the relief she sought in Euclidian Geometry, she flouted her father’s contempt for artists, and sought solace in the geometry of visual forms on paper, and later in three-dimensional space, instead.
As a young girl, Bourgeois had used her drawing talents to help her parents repair worn tapestries by sketching in the missing parts that had to be rewoven. After leaving the Sorbonne, she sought formal training at various art institutes, such as École de Beaux Arts, Académie Ranson, Académie Julian, and began to frequent artists’ studios, encountering artists such as Yves Brayer, Fernand Léger, André Lhote, and others.
In 1936, while she was still a student, she rented a flat in the building where famed Surrealist André Breton’s gallery Gravida would soon be located. Familiar with their work and their circle, Bourgeois rejected both the patriarchal authority of that male-dominated scene, and the label of Surrealist, and identified herself instead as an existentialist. Uninterested in finding either surrogate father figure or paternal patron, and unwilling to play the main roles available to women in the scene – that of sexual object and/or muse – Bourgeois chose independence over belonging and maintained a certain distance from the Surrealist movement.
In 1938, over discussions of Picasso at the print shop she had opened in Paris, where she sold lithographs of major artists, Bourgeois met her future husband, Robert Goldwater, an eminent art historian who pioneered the study of “primitive” art. They married soon thereafter and she moved to New York. There she would raise their three boys, survive the death of her husband in 1973, and pursue her vigorous art practice from her late twenties until she died at the age of 98 in May of 2010, at the peak of her creative powers.
In New York, Bourgeois’ art practice galvanized around the intensely personal motifs she would explore throughout her life in various media. When she first arrived in the US in late 1938, the respected painter and art teacher Vaclav Vytlacil mentored her. Her paintings and prints from that period already offer a precocious glance at many of her life-long preoccupations – in particular her fraught relationship to the twin poles of autonomy and connectedness – and prominent themes that reappear in various guises throughout her long career.
Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Louise Bourgeois became a respected participant in the New York art world. Although her work was well-received within the art circle and by the 1940s she was exhibiting alongside major American artists such as Mark Rothko, Willem De Kooning, and Jackson Pollock, she did not enjoy the same widespread public recognition garnered by her male peers until her breakthrough 1982 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
Too expansive to be contained within the confines of established “schools of art,” Bourgeois’ work drew freely on the visual and conceptual resources of art history and defiantly resisted assimilation into easy categorization. Her gift for making meaningful wholes out of a patchwork of ragged parts has ensured the evocative force and enduring relevance of her work. Indeed, the visual grammar that she offered for making sense of the human condition now inhabits the deep structure of our collective unconscious in ways that have transformed the landscape of contemporary art in Asia as well as in the Western hemisphere.
Throughout her seventy-year career, Bourgeois worked her way through multiple modes of exploration that form distinct genres of her practice. In her early paintings, from the late 30s and 40s, such as her Femme Maison works, disciplinary domestic architecture envelops the heads and upper bodies of nude female figures.
In her sculptural debut in 1949 with her Personages works, the totemic wooden pieces were long, thin, vertical, phallic, and precariously installed throughout the gallery environment like a group of people that viewers had to move among and face.
Between 1953 and 1964, Bourgeois worked in relative isolation. Her move to Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, where she lived until her death in 2010, marked a shift in her practice that also reflected the relocation of her studio space to the basement. From 1963-67, Soft Landscapes were wrought from materials as diverse as alabaster and plastic. Later, plaster and laytex were molded into squat, biomorphic forms, culminating in her most overtly phallic work – Fillette (1968) – and father-oriented work – Destruction of the Father (1974) – a symbolic, cannibalistic consumption of the tyrannical, once-beloved father who betrayed her.
In the late 60s, a trip back to Europe led to a two-decade-long enchantment with “traditional materials” such as bronze and marble. She explored increasingly biomorphic and gender ambiguous, polyvalent imagery in a form she called the Cumul, which like cottony clouds in the sky seem to shift shape to yield abstracted body parts and morphing masculine and feminine signifiers.
In the 1990s, Bourgeois began making her Cell installations, which combined the found and the fabricated, sculpture and installation, to create emotionally evocative environments of intensely provocative power.
During the same period, she began to make works using textiles and sewing, turning her own cast-off clothing into figurative soft sculpture, and produced a body of work that manifested her growing preoccupation with motherhood, and the reparative possibilities of maternal power, among other existential states of being. Perhaps because her mother was a weaver who could make the frayed and damaged whole again, Bourgeois saw needles as restorative, rather than violent, symbols.
At the turn of the century and into the new millennium, when she was well into her nineties, Bourgeois was still prolific. Reanimating her “good mother,” the weaver, in a new guise, she began to make her iconic spiders, exemplified by the 9-meter tall steel Maman (1999) protecting her clutch of marble eggs.
Vulnerable yet formidable, frightened yet courageous, Bourgeois explored her conscious and unconscious fears of abandonment and need for human connection through her remarkably diverse and prolific art practice. This enabled her to give concrete forms and specific faces to her most intimate terrors and desires in an effort to confront and heal the wounds of the past. The enduring power of her art is a testament to the ways in which the fragmented, damaged parts of an individual’s life can be repaired and restored into a coherent whole that can speak to the larger human condition.
Just as the central mode of “meaning making” in Bourgeois’ work is metonymic – in which a part stands for a larger whole – her private, personal preoccupations stand for elements of our shared human experience of being in the world. Her art embodies a courageous struggle to find equilibrium between the antinomies of “being in the world” – alone and together – that she understood so well. We are mortally alone and we are inextricably connected. This connection is fraught with anxiety and pain, but it is also one of the great sources of pleasure and reasons to persist in our separate, yet intertwined existences.
With the intensity of someone for whom art offered the only safety net she knew how to weave, Bourgeois lived and worked like a tightrope walker balancing herself over the abyss of the mortal world of Others, afraid of heights, but nevertheless forcing herself to keep looking down.
Like so many of us, Bourgeois needed and sought a human intimacy that she feared and sometimes fled. In her art, she evoked binaries and oppositional categories in a way that undermined them, dissolving their boundaries. Even as she feared instability and chaos, her work consistently challenged the order these binaries represented, rendering them ambivalent, and offering us new possibilities for seeing ourselves and our world in the process.
Perhaps we can imagine Bourgeois as one of her iconic spiders, clinging to the threads that crisscross and intersect to form the web of her works, spun out of past traumas and transformed into existential safety nets. Spinning visual narratives that gave form to her fears, and allowed her to exorcise her demons, making art gave Bourgeois a thread to navigate her way through the labyrinth of her unconscious, and her painful past. The shared pathos of this human predicament and the gloriously sui generis manner in which Bourgeois conducted her life and made her art resonate on a frequency across the webs that bind us all together in ways that ensure the enduring relevance and restorative power of her work.
1 Gorovoy, Jerry and Danielle Tinkin, “There’s No Place Like Home,” in Louise Bourgeois: Memory and Architecture, exhibition catalogue, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 1999, p.15.
Published on the occasion of the exhibition “Louise Bourgeois: Alone and Together”, organized by and presented at Faurschou Foundation Beijing, 27 October 2012 – 24 March 2013 and Faurschou Foundation Copenhagen, 5 September 2013 – 14 February 2014.
All installation views are of “Louise Bourgeois: Alone and Together” at the Faurschou Foundation in Beijing, 10.27.2012 – 03.24.2013.
Louise Bourgeois’ art, writings, and archival material are © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, NY.
Faurschou Foundation Copenhagen
Faurschou Foundation Beijing
P.O Box 8502,
798 Art District
No.2, Jiuxianqiao Road,
Chaoyang District, Beijing,
Editors: Janna Lund, Wendy Williams, Maggie Wright
Translation from English to Chinese: Wang Yitong, Zhang Xiaohua, Wang Wenjing
Translation from Chinese to English: Cindy Carter
Photographers: Anders Sune Berg, Christopher Burke, Jonathan Leijonhufvud, Mark Setteducati
All images are by Jonathan Leijonhufvud, except on page 124-127, 134-135 and 138-141 . These are by Anders Sune Berg. And the image on page 7-8 is by Christopher Burke. The portrait of Louise Bourgeois on page 3 is by Mark Setteducati, © The Easton Foundation.
Unless otherwise indicated, all images of Louise Bourgeois’ artwork are provided courtesy of Cheim & Read and Hauser & Wirth.
Design: Anne Solmer
Printed in Denmark by Rosendahls
Cover image: details of “Crouching Spider”, 2003, steel, 270.5 x 835.7 x 627.4 cm.