Louise Bourgeois: Between Body and Anti-body

We can approach the work of Louise Bourgeois in several different ways: the feminist perspective (which she sometimes agrees with and sometimes does not); through a psychobiographical analysis, which is very tempting since she has kept extensive diaries and readily tells stories about her life; through a psychoanalytic analysis which makes minimal or no reference to her life; through a study of the formal properties of her art and its relationship to other movements; through a focus on the 1970s and the emergence of post-minimalist or "eccentric" abstraction.  Admittedly, it is often hard to keep these separate since the formal qualities of her work immediately suggest psychoanalytic interpretations.

Formlessness as a characteristic:
This is not simply the substitution of impure form for pure form but the creation of forms or categories of things which cannot be classified because they are in between existing categories (they are impure).  The "forms" of much of Bourgeois' work have this formless quality in two ways: in some cases, what we see appears to be something which doesn't exist, such as the house-woman. In some cases, the biomorphic resemblances are made to male and female organs united in a single form (this has been described as "organ-logic"*), or to a mixture of interior and exterior spaces united in a way that makes the interior seem to be outside and the exterior seem to be inside. Other qualities which are usually distinct and separate appear united or fused so that Bourgeois' work has no location or position in terms of standard categories or in terms of art. My discussion here is a relatively traditional approach to her work, based primarily on the psychoanalytic and formal analytic approaches.

*organ-logic (a term used by the art historian Rosalind Krauss): refers to the representation of an organ which stands for the person who is significant in some way to another person; this other person is also represented by a body organ and the two organs are united to make something which signifies both people

Femme-Maison, 1946-7 (oil and ink on linen) Femme-Maison, 1946-7 (oil on linen) Femme-Maison, 1946-7 (oil on linen)
Janus Fleuri, 1968 (bronze) Blind Man's Buff, 1984 (marble) Le Regard (The Gaze), 1966 (latex over burlap)

Blind Man's Buff: a work which relates to the image of the ancient goddess Artemis (see below) and a statue of her made for the temple at Ephesus and to Krauss's suggestion of an "organ-logic"-carved stone suggestive of a human shape but without a head, breast-like protuberances which seem to be on the verge of becoming phallic, an almost diseased body but in its multitude of organs, it is a body of power. The organ-logic: the desired body parts of both bodies are here, potentially united but still separate.  Is there a psychological logic present as well? These bodies, which are remarkably inchoate are also architectural-the inchoate subconscious in contention or subjection to the architectonic conscious.  The Gaze is a more disturbing work because of its suggestion of a mouth and inner guts spilling out.  Yet, its name, the Gaze, tells us that this "mouth" is the organ of sight.

statue, Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (Hellenistic Turkey, ca 550 b.c.e.) Cumul 1, 1969

Architecture and memory are important components of Bourgeois' work.  In interviews, she has described architecture as a visual expression of memory, or conversely, memory as a type of architecture.  The memory which figures into a lot of her narratives is an invented memory about the imaginary and imagined exorcism of her father.  The imagined part of this memory is interwoven with the real memory of living across the way from a slaughterhouse, a childhood memory of visiting her father at the front, and memories of seeing wounded veterans after the war.  Her father was a man who represented injury and war, who represented aggrandizement of himself and belittlement of others, a man who represented betrayal.  The formative event in this case concerns her father's betrayal of her mother, the presence of his mistress in her family home, and her mother's death. Bourgeois talks freely about her continued emotional response to these events and the role it plays in her art although she centralizes the emotion of fear and not the events.  The Destruction of the Father is based on a "dream" in which the mother and children tear the father from limb to limb and then feast on his body.

Destruction of the Father, 1974 (detail) Destruction of the Father, 1974

Psychoanalytic interpretation does not have to be based on her autobiography (and often isn't).  The classic Freudian model of child development is based on the development of the male child and his mastery over the process of separation from the mother.  This process is more troublesome for the girl child since the mother is not clearly different or "other" from the little girl, the way she is for the little boy.  Spiraling or spinning spaces may make a visual analogy to the female process of achieving separation as the little girl creates a space in which she can continue to sustain this relationship even as she loses the connection.

Fickle Woman, 1950 Spiral Woman, 1984

The interpretations we find for her work tend to be different, as these are, and to reflect the specific qualities of an individual work or the orientation of the critic.  Yet, they may not be completely exclusive of one another.   If Bourgeois' works are autobiographical, they can still have a more general and archetypal meaning if we understand the autobiography as the historical source for the artwork and the path to the unconscious, which in turn becomes a pathway to archetypal imagery and meaning.  Hence, the value of looking at the ancient Greek goddess Artemis, the figure with a large number of protuberances on her body, and the psychoanalytic explanation which dovetails nicely with much of the labyrinthine quality of Bourgeois' work.  The latter explanation is perhaps more useful when it is specifically combined with the autobiographical content because without it, how does it shed specific light on the work of Bourgeois, as opposed to that of any female artist.

Lairs and cells form a major part of her work in the 1990s.   "The lair is a protected place you can enter to take refuge. And it has a back door through which you can escape. Otherwise it's not a lair. A lair is not a trap" (Bourgeois).  The artist uses the idea of a lair in much the same way that she uses the dual understanding we can have of cells (in both an organic sense and in the sense of imprisonment).  Ultimately, the lairs and the cells relate to an understanding of vision and the senses as embodied: the body part is a substitute for a sense; the body part with an opening suggests passage from exterior to interior or from reason to emotion.

Articulated Lair, 1986 No Exit, 1989 (wood, painted metal, rubber)

The Articulated Lair: black-and-white metal shutters form the boundary, the space has a fan-like arrangement to it which can be shifted into different configurations; hanging rubber objects give the space an ominous quality. The lair is a space which can be entered and left; this lair, with its suggestion of suspended body parts and its invitation to the viewer to become a part of the work, may be an articulation not only of a lair but of the femme-maison drawings. But it is something more than that, although that alone is disconcertingly dramatic. I see it as an architectonic translation of dream space--the hanging sacks are the repositories of the images and words which make up a dream; dream language, with its condensed imagery and improbable sense of time and space is the whole structure, the articulated lair, but in contrast to the title of the work, the dream is not fully articulated at this point in time. The dream, or nightmare, as it may be, is articulated in the later cells.

Bourgeois: Cell 3, White Marble Spheres, 1993 Cell: Arch of Hysteria, 1992-3

The cells can also be seen as a continuation of the femme-maison idea, made more theatrical.  For Bourgeois, as we have already noted, architectural forms are visual evocations of memory.  The cells are generally characterized by the objects contained within them, usually including body parts or figural elements, spheres or other geometric forms, and mirrors.

12 Oval Mirrors, 1998 Cell: You Better Grow Up, 1993

Cell: You Better Grow Up: this cell is made of iron and glass with mirrors in the ceiling and on two sides.  In the center we see pink marble with three hands carved into it.  But why three hands? As Bourgeois explains, the three hands can suggest the dependency of the child on the adult.  This cell uses the idea of three in other places: three pieces of furniture with objects on them.  What do the mirrors do? Reflect and interact with one another, creating a multiple, distorted world view, terrifying to the child but logical to the adult.
In 12 Oval Mirrors, the mirrors have become the structural element, creating a new type of cell, one which reflects the image of the viewer.

Spider, 1997 detail

Spider combines an earlier work of hers with the new one.  The "first" spider hovers over this new work, ingesting it?  Or producing it?
Part of the spider protrudes through the cell at the top: a sack of egg-like objects
some elements are visible on the outside; some are suspended on the inside, but few are free-standing, with the exception of the throne
the throne evokes the idea of Bernini and his Cathedra Petri - that work was a reliquary throne, containing the real throne inside, and suggesting a spiritual ascendence to the other world;
is this throne a relic of her childhood home?  And is the spider the source of transcendence?  But the relics included in the cage are things which not only relate to her own life but also relate to the Renaissance and which relate to the passage of time, to locked doors and to relationships (key, watch, locket)
this is a relatively late life work for Bourgeois, so perhaps we should see this as her transformation of the original autobiographical fantasy world into a world which is about her personal transformation of Renaissance and Baroque sculpture, making Bernini into a part of her present.

We might use her metaphor of nested relationships to understand her career:
the autobiographical impulse, which is her childhood home, her feelings of betrayal and abandonment, rage at her father, the loss of her mother when she died
artistic context; surrealism and Duchamp were obviously influential, as was Giacometti; the continued use of found objects, some of which are elements of her memory; the compositional formats which suggest the fusion or union of contradictory impulses; her investigations of other sculpture and sculptors
social and historical context: war, feminism, psychoanalytic theory
universal context: allusions to archetypal images and the meta-spiritual idea of home

With respect to the artistic influences, in addition to her relationship to surrealism, Duchamp, Bernini and Giacometti, we should not ignore the movement with which she is most closely affiliated: minimalism.  But this connection may be the most puzzling given that her psychological subject matter seems to be contrary to what minimalism attempted.  The seemingly anti-subjective and expressionist aspect of minimalism foregrounded the anonymity of the artist, industrialization, and mathematical progressions.  Yet, the techniques, materials and math were often chosen for personal and psychological associations.
Post-minimalism was the term applied to a great deal of art made in the 70s, and it was chosen to suggest anti-minimalist qualities in this art. But in most cases, the art which has been called post-minimalist shares certain critical features with minimalism, so it is not a complete rejection of minimalism.   What appears to be accepted from minimalism is the emphasis on conceptual strategies which underlie the design of the work.  But what appears to be rejected is the belief of artists such as Richard Serra that the private self, a self which exists with its own set of meanings before coming into contact with the world, is a fantasy.  In the end, those minimalist strategies which appear to be non-psychologically motivated were often used by the post-minimalists, although they used them to create different meanings and they used them in a manner which suggested more of the artist's "hand" and less of industrial processes than was true of the minimalists of the 1960s.