Online: Louise Bourgeois: Drawings 1947-2007
March 25, 2020
By Jonathan Goodman, June 2020
This online show of the drawings of Louise Bourgeois, spanning sixty years, dramatically explores and reveals the emotional life of the artist. Damaged by her father’s infidelities, the French-born Bourgeois moved to New York in 1938, where she practiced art in several media, including sculpture, for which she is best known. The drawings we see in this exhibition bridge most of her active career, and exemplify the marvelous conflation of surrealism and psychological vulnerability, and anger as well, that were joined from the start in her image-making. Bourgeois’s work can seem so adept and various as to have been produced by several artists, but as this show points out, the emotional primacy of childhood serves both as a starting point and an ongoing guide for the artist’s troubled imagination.
An early drawing, untitled, from 1951, describes a room without a roof, with the floor and the right wall and back wall indicated by diagonal lines. Three slightly shapeless masses accentuate the open structure, also making it mysterious in the surreal fashion. On the floor is a lozenge shape, created with small black strokes and occurring at a right angle to the angled pattern beneath it. Above this shape, set behind the design of the black wall, is something that might be a creature, perhaps a bird, drawn with a round body, a flat tail, a thin, vertical neck, and what could be seen as a beak. We are not sure if this is a design or a living thing. The final image is that of a white oval outlined in black, located on the upper right of the right wall. Dark, curving lines, rather like hair, flow away from what may be a face without features. The overall impression of the composition is that of a random, nearly encaged environment inhabited with nameless, vaguely hostile presences.
A later work, from 1970, looks like an abstract landscape. It includes, in the upper register, the lower half of a blue circle, perhaps a surreal sun, girded beneath by an angularly pink, horizontal strip--a mountain range?--which is then fronted by a series of interlocking, white, breast-like hills, down the middle of which traverses a jagged pink line. This may be a fanciful interpretation of an otherwise abstract landscape, but there are enough resemblances, as occur in the description just given, to justify a landscape reading. Bourgeois creates imageries that approximate but do not exactly equal what they should suggest.
A final image to be described, the watercolor and pencil on paper called Split or Star (1986), consists of a large blue scissors located in the upper center of the composition, while beneath it, to the right is a small red shears. According to a quote by the artist, the large shears is her mother, while the smaller implement is Bourgeois herself. Surely, the idea of maternity as a cutting device is not without psychic violence! But as the end of the artist’s quotation indicates, the large scissors is not meant to read negatively: “I liked the way she was: very dangerous.” Bourgeois is nothing if not a psychologically inclined practitioner of visionary menace, in which the entire world can seem threatening. This being so, it is clear that her imagination sustains extended moments of aggression without a loss of visual coherence, resulting in art that remains memorable both for its unease and its emotive force. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
view all articles from this author