- Photo by Christopher Burke
- Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer, © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
This month's cover art is by Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), one of the most important artists of the 20th and early 21st centuries. The first woman ever to have a retrospective at MoMA, Bourgeois is best known for making sculptures of giant spiders. One of her arachnids haunts an upper floor of Dia:Beacon. You have to look for it to find it. It's very dark and scary—definitely not a spider of the eensy-weenie variety. It's more like something from a horror movie. Bourgeois said that her spiders were representations of her mother, who ran the workshop in the family's tapestry-weaving business.
The brightly colored image on the cover, though, is a departure for Bourgeois. The couples are very tall and tightly wrapped, the women are wearing ostentatious red high heels—it's positively jaunty in comparison to most of her work. The original piece can be found easily in the second of three rooms of an exhibition at Vassar's Lehman Loeb Art Center dedicated to the artist's late prints, most of which were done when she was in her 80s and 90s. The show, titled "Louise Bourgeois: Ode to Forgetting," is drawn from the collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and is organized by the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Washington State University.
But what exactly was Bourgeois trying to forget? Or more precisely, remember and get over?
It turns out that things were not exactly idyllic in the big house by the Seine back when Bourgeois was growing up. Her father was carrying on a long-term affair with her live-in tutor and her mother didn't seem to care. This triple betrayal haunted Bourgeois throughout her life and critics have combed her diaries and analyzed her art looking for clues to how it affected her work. Her father also berated Bourgeois about her artistic ambitions (she was a woman, what was she thinking?).
The show's curator, Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings, notes that "Bourgeois made drawings daily, beginning in childhood and continuing until her death. She made art because she had to, and described her practice as a means of survival, a lifelong managing of emotional vulnerabilities, traumas, and nightmares. As she put it, 'Art is a guarantee of sanity.'"
Comprised of 80-plus works in a variety of print media—including works on fabric and some incorporating crochet and sewing—covering subjects including the female body under psychological siege, spiders, resilience, relationships, memory, and time—the exhibition at Lehman Loeb is a testament to Bourgeois's ultimate triumph over her inner demons. Though it is easy to get caught up in her personal history, critic Robert Storr notes, "it is unfair to reduce artists to those who feel and to those who think...most good artists do both." He goes on to note that Bourgeois was one of the most literate and cultured artists of her time.
Bourgeois is not easy to categorize, though undoubtedly influenced by Surrealism, she rejected that label. Her work dealt with actual memories, not dreams; she also found the surrealist's belittlement of women intolerable, though she did not identify herself as a feminist. Younger women artists like the Guerilla Girls and Tracy Enim see her as one, nevertheless. Bourgeois is beyond labels.
That's her dancing in Couples. You can tell by the long red hair. The spiral that entwines her with her partner(s) is one of her signature motifs. She saw it as a signifier of the complexity of relationships. Toward the center of the spiral can be comfort or a trap, toward the outside can be alienation and fear. To her, red was the color of blood and suffering, but in Couples she is light on her feet in her red shoes. Art is about truth and truth can be complex.
"Louise Bourgeois: Ode to Forgetting," is on display through April 5 at the Lehman Loeb Art Center on the campus of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie.