The young Louise Bourgeois “absorbed a Cubist-based abstractionist style,” William Rubin writes,(1) as though that remained the foundation for the “formal vocabulary” of her mature sculpture.  But C.O.Y.O.T.E. and The Blind Leading The Blind, both 1947-49--peculiarly temple-like constructions, the modular verticals marching in formation, implicitly repeated ad infinitum --have left Cubism far behind.  Their radical simplicity is Minimalist--this two decades before Minimalism became the “in” style.


Similarly, Lair, 1986, a sculpture of rubber, suspended like an ominous teardrop, and Mamelles, 1991, a wall relief of rubber, fiberglass and wood (soft, malleable, flexible materials)--are Post-minimalist.  If Post-Minimalism “actively rejects the high formalist cult of impersonality, and with that “eccentric processes, substances and colorations” conveying “the uniqueness of personality,”(2) then Bourgeois was a Post-Minimalist before it was fashionable to be one.  She was always ahead of the art times--going her own way, she was a one-person avant-garde. Independent by temperament as well as choice--profoundly her own unique person—she never toed the current avant-garde line, never moved in trendy lockstep.  As Rubin suggests, when everyone was wildly abstract expressionist, she experienced it as a procrustean constraint.  Always thinking outside the envelope--inherently unconventional-- she had greater creative freedom than the officially avant-garde movements she “anticipated.”


More signficantly, at least to me, Bourgeois’s sculptures have the aura of uncanniness that abstract art had when it was new and unfamiliar, an uncanniness it inevitably lost when it became à la mode establishment art. It lost its soul--what Kandinsky called its inner necessity--as it became matter-of-fact: “positivist,” as Clement Greenberg called it, that is, simply a “statement” of the “formal facts” (line, color, shape). More pointedly, it lost what G. Albert Aurier, the great Symbolist critic and theorist, called “the transcendental emotivity, so grand and precious, that makes the soul tremble before the pulsing drama of the abstractions.”(3) I think Bourgeois restores inner necessity--inner grandeur—to abstraction, by way of what I want to call her “transcendental viscerality.”  She distills the body to its organic essence, focuses bodiliness in pure abstract form, concentrates it so that it seems ultra-autonomous.


The two untitled hanging pieces of 2004--each a sort of abstract Venus of Willendorf (a fertility goddess reduced to her physical essentials)—make this transparently clear.  Composed of idiosyncratically modular elements,like C.O.Y.O.T.E. and The Blind Leading The Blind—only now the units are rounded, “fleshy” shapes, biomorphically voluptuous (and oddly gesture-like), rather than stick figures, their geometrical severity softened by colorful paint (all of Bourgeois’s sculptures, whether female or male in import, are simultaneously austere and intimate)--they have abstract purity with no sacrifice of expressive power, the power and expressivity inherent to the body (female or male) and its parts.  (Some sculptures involve systematic repetition, others involve eccentric repetition. Whether regular or irregular, Bourgeois uses repetition to achieve—perhaps ironically--an effect of unity and control.)


The curvilinear shapes--dare one say that the thinner piece is an abstraction of a seductive young girl, while the full-bodied piece is a pregnant woman? (the body seems to overflow with ripeness)—are examples of what Rubin calls the “accumulative, burgeoning mounds”(4) that proliferate in Bourgeois’s sculpture.  (The plaster Figure, 1960 and Fragile Goddess, ca. 1970 make her concern with pregnancy--motherhood--evident.)  What he neglects to say is that they are derived from the curves of the female body--all the more conspicuous during pregnancy.  Indeed, they suggest the bulging belly of the pregnant woman, and, as many works indicate, the breast, even breast envy.  Bourgeois’s remark, in one of her journals—she compares her small breasts to her sister’s large ones, implying that her sister is more feminine, attractive, nourishing, and wholesome than she is--suggests as much.  Mamelles, Cleavage, 1991, and even Le Trani Episode, 1971 and Lair, certainly suggest her breast obsession.  This may be overdoing my metaphoric interpretation--my reading of Bourgeois’s sculptures as poems of the body--but there is no escaping the influence of personal history, however mythologized, on Bourgeois’s art, as she herself says.


If, as Wilhelm Worringer famously argued, art is an endless dialectic of abstraction from nature and empathic identification with it, and, as T. W. Adorno thought, the antipodes of modern art are construction and expression--calculation and spontaneity, one might say—then Bourgeois’s sculptures are this dialectic at its most subtle, and a brilliant integration of mechanical construction and vital expression.  Adorno thought they had to be kept separate—“pure”—to be aesthetically effective, but Bourgeois shows they are more aesthetically convincing when they come together--seamlessly synthesize, as in Bourgeois’s sculpture.  Even The Institute, 2002--clearly a pre-modern architectural construction—acquires expressive resonance--an auratic sheen--by reason of its silver.


The opposites are dramatically dialectical in No Exit, 1989 and Cell VIII, 1998, tours de force of installation.  In No Exit, yellow balls of rubber are juxtaposed with a white arch.  The balls are organic expressions, the arch a grand construction.  A stairway moves through the arch, not quite reaching to the space between the balls.  Are they two breasts or two testicles?  “Awkward” circles, they can be read both ways.  Is the staircase a penis?  Passing through the arch and climbing the staircase, are we ascending to heaven?  Or are we looking at the face to which facades of buildings have been compared?  (The staircase as the nose, the balls downwardly displaced eyes, the framing arch the containing contour.) Is this Duchamp¹s staircase without the descending nude?  Can the arch be said to from a halo around the staircase, as though sanctifying it?  Are the yellow balls derived from the ornamental globes that sometimes flank royal residences, as though announcing that their inhabitants rule the world that can be surveyed from the grand staircase?  Rich with associations, Bourgeois’s work is haunted by art historical as well as private memories. This is more clearly the case in Cell VIII, where the fabric alludes to the Bourgeois family tapestry factory, even as the prison-like cell may express the feeling that she felt caged in by her French family.  She was not fully liberated as an artist, and did not fully come into her own as a person, until she married an American and moved to the United States.





Back to Archive

Visual Arts


Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

The Real Abstract: Louise Bourgeois’s Sculpture by Donald Kuspit