At 98, Louise Bourgeois is, in many ways, the mother of us all and seer of the past half century. After living in the shadows of her parents, restorers of tapestries in Paris, and in the shadow of her art historian American husband in New York, Bourgeois was given her due at 71 in a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and she’s been knocking our socks off ever since. Using wood, marble, glass, bronze, fabric, print, and mixed media, Bourgeois is adroit at exploring taboo subjects—from the idea of the baby in the womb to her father’s affair with her tutor and the many psychological issues that involve notions of home, self, family, and relationships. Even when Bourgeois is her most literal—using her own old clothes as pale, delicate reminders of former selves—she shows us the larger picture.
The artist often works in series. The anthropomorphic objects and images in her great spider series zero in on relations between mothers and their offspring. Her large scale tower series I DO, I UNDO, I REDO, installed in the inaugural exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2000, suggests that we variously isolate ourselves and hide our “skeletons” in different ways.
The potency and larger-than-life qualities of her images and themes is what makes her art great. Who doesn’t know the Robert Mapplethorpe photo of Bourgeois carrying—or wielding—what appears to be a giant phallus? What about those performance pieces and costumes from 1978? And her exacting humor? Bourgeois is a living treasure who deserves all of the honors she has received, including the French Legion of Honor medal presented by President Sarkozy at the artist’s Chelsea home in 2008; the Praemium Imperiale Award in the sculpture category from the Japan Art Association in 1999; the Golden Lion for a living master of contemporary art at the Venice Biennale in 1999; and the National Medal of Arts presented by President Clinton at the White House in 1997. Her most recent retrospective exhibition, from October 2007 through May 2009, traveled to the Tate Modern, the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Guggenheim New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
“My work has its own internal rhythms, and yet the outside world filters in slowly in an unconscious way,” The artist tells Art and Living. “I sense that everyone is struggling, and you feel it.”