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Feminine Mystique

Three Local Institutions Offer Different Views of the Discreet Charms of Louise Bourgeois

HARD SERVE: "The Couple" represents just one facet of Louise Bourgeois' mercurial artistic vision.
Femme Couteau

By J. Bowers | Posted 2/22/2006

Louise Bourgeois: Femme; Louise Bourgeois: Prints and Unique Works on Paper

At the Walters Art Museum through May 21 and at the Contemporary Museum through April 23

At Goya Contemporary through April 14

Everything about Louise Bourgeois defies easy categorization. She is a consummate artist, shaping almost every medium you can envision in nearly every manner imaginable. A citizen of New York since the 1930s, Bourgeois grew up in France, the daughter of a devoted mother who ran a tapestry-repair business and an unfaithful father who openly took his children’s tutor for a mistress. Her works have always combined the innocence of childhood with the wisdom of age, using overt metaphor to challenge gender roles, sexuality, and what it means to be a woman.

Bourgeois’ résumé is literally as thick as a book. Her works are in many major permanent collections, including those owned by the British Museum, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has won countless awards and accolades, including France’s Grand Prix National de Sculpture, the United States’ National Medal of Arts, and the Golden Lion, a special honor “for a living master of contemporary art” awarded by the Venice Biennale.

Now, at 94, Bourgeois has collaborated with the Walters Art Museum and the Contemporary Museum to install Louise Bourgeois: Femme, a decades-spanning collection of more than 40 sculptures, several on exhibit for the first time. Instead of finding Bourgeois’ sculptures sectioned off in the first-floor gallery, you’ll find them scattered throughout the Walters’ historic collections, engaged in visual dialogues with iconic works. The museum becomes the staging area for a scavenger hunt, drawing you from gallery to gallery on a crash-course in Bourgeois.

It’s a gutsy way to display contemporary art, done with great success at London’s Victoria and Albert museum. Here, Bourgeois’ playful and provocative sculptures add an electric jolt to the Walters’ established classics. The docents look nervous, and understandably so, given the museum’s family-friendly appeal. Bourgeois’ work is decidedly not for the young, but the small Bourgeois “Spider” located in the kid-favorite Chamber of Wonders is thoughtfully G-rated.

The rest of the museum has been elevated to PG-13 status, thanks to Bourgeois’ groundbreaking works. (But then again, they’ve been displaying breasts and penises in there for years.) For instance, “Blind Man’s Buff,” a bulbous 1984 plaster sculpture, hunches amid Greek and Roman statuary. At once phallic and breastlike, its undulating, hermaphroditic forms subtly pervert the male and female physical ideals worshipped by the ancients. “Janus in Leather Jacket,” a 1968, abstract double-headed phallus fashioned from black bronze, hangs from a wire in the Etruscan Art Gallery. Its crescent shape echoes a nearby display of bronze handles found on Praenestine jugs, molded to resemble somersaulting men and women. Willendorfian female torsos with abstract penises instead of heads are a favorite Bourgeois motif. “Femme,” a pale pink female torso reduced to abstract ovoid forms, has legs that could easily be viewed as labia, breasts that double for arms.

This exhibit marks the first time that Bourgeois’ works have been integrated with a museum’s permanent collection, and she’s obviously delighted—playfully placing her “St. Sebastienne,” a delicately fashioned fabric self-portrait pierced with silver arrows—yes, even there—next to a Renaissance painting of St. Sebastian.

But Bourgeois’ sense of humor extends beyond her willingness to interact with the spirits of the past and reappropriate the phallic symbol. Her 1994 “Femme Maison” is an elegantly hewn marble tabletop sculpture of a woman prone, hiding her head in a small house. Ignoring the obvious nod to the feminist movement’s constant struggle to avoid housewife stereotypes, Bourgeois identifies deeper psychological undertones in the accompanying artist’s notes. “She does not know that she is half naked, and she does not know that she is trying to hide,” she writes. “That is to say, she is totally self-defeating, because she shows herself at the very moment that she thinks she is hiding.”

Accompanying nearly every piece, Bourgeois’ personal insights introduce you to the woman behind the work. With Bourgeois, this is crucial—vaguely autobiographical, nearly always self-portraiture, her art is best appreciated in the context of a woman growing into herself, exorcising childhood demons even as she discovers new, very adult ones. As you wander through the Walters, her work invents its own idiosyncratic vocabulary. Motifs recur and evolve. Couples are alternately reviled (1997’s “Couple IV,” two life-sized headless figures sewn out of black thermal underwear, posed in the missionary position) and revered (2003’s “The Couple,” swirling luminously above the Walters’ front lobby). Women and children appear frequently, sometimes protected, sometimes defiant.

When you combine the Walters’ retrospective with the Contemporary Museum’s offerings—which include “Topiary: The Art of Improving Nature,” a set of nine copperplate etchings making their American gallery debut, and an insightful 2003 documentary on Bourgeois that invites you into her studio—this midtown collaboration is an excellent overview of the artist’s career. But if you skip Goya Contemporary’s selection of her recent prints and unique works on paper, you’re missing out on a whole other side of Bourgeois.

Before earning international acclaim as a sculptor, Bourgeois made a name for herself as an engraver and painter. She’s frequently returned to these avenues of expression, and her crisp drawing style and sense of color expand upon the playfulness found in her sculptural work, while further exploring familiar pet issues and symbols. “The Songs of the Blacks and the Blues,” a 1989-’96 lithograph, uses multicolored snail-like phalluses in an almost Seussian manner.

Indeed, Bourgeois nearly always appears to be channeling and challenging both Dr. Seuss and Dr. Freud. In her later works, she is still probing symbols, but more gently. Her 2001 “Couples” lithograph envelops three stilt-tall couples in the artist’s trademark swirling phallic spirals—a motif she’s said stands for both “affirmation” and “the fear of losing control.” Similar in composition to the Walters’ “The Couple,” this lithograph is much less violent than the copulating lovers in “Couple IV.” The women here grin softly, content with their lipstick-red hair and high heels, while their men hold them tight, soothed by the watery blue background.

There’s a sense of calm to these works rarely seen in Bourgeois’ sculptures; where they rage, many of these drawings smile. “Femme Couteau,” her iconic 2002 sculpture of a guillotined nude, is miles away from the naive optimism found in 2004’s “Hang On,” a crayoned cartoon of a person clinging to a branch. Within Bourgeois’ uncanny wide range, her essence remains elusive, a woman-child scattering clues like breadcrumbs throughout her works.

A suggested itinerary: Walters, Contemporary, then Goya. You’ll see Bourgeois tangle with the classics, be curious enough about her technique to check out a documentary, and finish up with some recent work in a completely different medium. The three-venue combination makes for a vital, up-to-the-minute
career retrospective, akin to last year’s equally impressive Grace Hartigan and Kerry James Marshall celebrations. Bourgeois, a fellow living contemporary legend, deserves—and gets—nothing less.

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