INTERVIEW WITH LOUISE BOURGEOIS BY RICHARD D. MARSHALL
23 AUGUST 2007
BY RICHARD MARSHALL
BY MARY ELLEN MARK
Contributors: AMANDA KEELEY MARY ELLEN MARK RICHARD D. MARSHALL
AMANDA KEELEY Amanda Keeley is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She enjoys condiments, cassette tapes, red shoes. Making microwave popcorn, and autumn. She is currently working on her first upcoming solo exhibition in NYC.
MARY ELLEN MARK Mary Ellen Mark has achieved worldwide visibility through her numerous books, exhibitions and editorial magazine work. Shi is a contributing photographer to The New Yorker and has published photo-essays and portraits in such publications as LIFE, New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. For almost three decades, she has traveled extensively to make pictures that reflect a high degree of humanism. Today, she is recognized as one of our most respected and influential photographers. Her images of out world’s diverse cultures have become landmarks in the field of documentary photography. Her portrayals of Mother Teresa, Indian circuses, and brothels in Bombay were the product of many years of work in India. A photo essay on runaway children in Seattle became the basis of the academy award nominated film Streetwise, directed and photographed by her husband, Martin Bell. Aside from her book and magazine work Mark has photographed advertising campaigns among which are Barnes and Noble, British Levi’s, Coach, Eileen Fisher, Hasselblad, Heineken, Keds, Mass Mutual, Nissan, and Patek Phillipe.
RICHARD D. MARSHALL Richard D. Marshall is an independent curator, art consultant, and art historian based in New York City. He was formerly Curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, where he organized numerous Biennial Exhibitions of contemporary art, and many seminal one-artist and group exhibitions. Marshall has recently organized international exhibitions of Louise Bourgeois (Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Monterrey, Mexico; and Contemporary Art Museum, Seville, Spain); Edward Ruscha (Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid); Alexander Calder (Japan Art and Culture Association, Tokyo);Robert Mapplethorpe (Mitsukoshi Museum, Tokyo); Jean-Michel Basquiat (Serpentine Gallery, London); Joan Mitchell (Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, Valencia, Spain); and Georgia O’Keeffe ( Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; and Vancouver Art Gallery, British Columbia). Marshall’s most recent books include Ed Ruscha (Phaidon Press); Jack Pierson: Desire Despair (Rizzolo International); and Georgia O’Keeffe: Nature and Abstraction (Skira Publishers).
RICHARD MARSHALL: Louise, I would like to discuss two separate, but related periods of your life – your early years in New York during the 1940s, and the artwork you have produced during the first seven years of the 21st century.
You moved to New York from Paris after your marriage to American art historian Robert Goldwater in 1938. What were your initial impressions of America and, specifically, New York City?
LOUISE BURGEOIS: I thought New York was beautiful, a cruel beauty in its blue sky, white light and skyscrapers. I felt lonely and stimulated.
RM: Did you set up at your own studio?
LB: It was not possible, as we lived in Robert’s small apartment.
RM: By 1941 you had three young sons, a busy and influential husband, a home, and your own art studies. How did you manage?
LB: Given the family setup, I worked on printmaking and painting. It was only when I encountered the roof of the building where we lived that I was able to concentrate on sculpture.
RM: Between 1945 and 1949 you had your first individual exhibition of paintings, prints and sculpture. How did the exhibitions come about?
LB: Arthur Drexler, who was an artist at the time but later became the curator of architecture and design at MoMA, offered me my first show of sculpture at Peridot Gallery in 1949.
RM: What did the artworks express?
LB: I re-created all the people that I had left behind in France. This was a period of both homesickness and mourning. It was an environmental installation where the viewer would enter the room and circulate among these presences. They had no bases and came directly up from the floor. They all came to a point and were fragile, which is the way I felt.
RM: What was the critical and financial response?
LB: The response was almost nothing, but artists like Duchamp and others were intrigued. It was my second show of sculpture at the Peridot Gallery in 1950 that Alfred Barr acquired Sleeping Figure for the Museum of Modern Art.
RM: You have lived in the same home on West 20th Street for almost 45 years. What does it mean to you? It is expressed in your art?
LB: The house on West 20th Street is a friendly refuge. It is like one of my “Lairs” or large “cells”. It has many doors and staircases, so you can come and go. The house is very functional.
RM: Because you no longer visit your Brooklyn studio, how do you organize your days?
LB: I had to give up the Brooklyn studio, as the area was being redeveloped. Now I work in my brownstone, usually working on sculpture in the morning and drawings or prints in the afternoon.
RM: Do you continue to review younger artists’ work at home on Sunday? What is the purpose of these meetings?
A detail of the west wall of Bourgeois’s living room, where she keeps old photographs, newspaper clippings, and letters
LB: I organized my Sunday salons as a way of keeping in touch with mostly younger artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and poets.
RM: A number of works completed during the 1960s through the 1990s are concerned with memories of your childhood, and the fear and anxiety elicited by the configuration of “the father, the mother, the mistress, and the children”
LB: My work deals with problems that I encounter with other people. I would like people to understand and like me, which is not an easy thing to achieve. My work is not about memories, but rather about problems and difficulties in the present. My work is my psychoanalysis and like psychoanalysis, you must go back and find the source of these feelings, good and bad, in order to understand how they are operating today and affecting the way you feel and live. In my case, there was a lot of resentment against my father in terms of this behavior and his demands upon me. There is an intense desire to please him. I had antagonistic feelings toward my father or, for the matter, any father figure. On a psychological level, I was being pulled apart in two directions, and I had this fear of falling down. There was a tremendous desire to please and a tremendous desire to “cut” everything in sight. Eventually the anger also turns in on the self and leads to depression.
RM: Works completed since the early 2000s suggest a more personal reference to your own adult life, your children, and your role as a wife and mother, rather than a daughter. Is this accurate?
“MY WORK IS NOT ABOUT MEMORIES, BUT RATHER ABOUT PROBLEMS AND DIFFICULTIES IN THE PRESENT”
LB: The most important person in my life was my mother. My “Spiders” are an ode to her. I have the responsibility for taking care of my sons. So when we talk about mother we are oscillating back and forth in time. I miss my mother. I am a a mother. I am looking for a mother.
RM: You made a number of “Couples” sculptures in 2000 to 2001. Each consists of two intertwined figures made of sewn fabric and suspended in vitrines. Who are the couples and why are they suspended?
LB: These are portraits of a relationship: they embrace each other, they hold onto each other, and they are tied together forever. Yet they hang by a point, which symbolizes their fragility. In all my work there is the fear of abandonment and separation.
RM: The Reticent Child is a diorama of six pink fabric figures including a pregnant woman, a naked male and a child. Who was the reticent child?
LB: “The reticent child” is my son Alain, who simply refused to be born. So the question for me was how much of his personality was established by his late arrival? Today Alain id very tight-lipped, secretive, and cautious. I wondered what he was afraid of or what he had to hide.
RM: Why does the male appear to be distressed or crying?
LB: He is not crying, but hiding. He is shy and afraid of something.
RM: The faces of the child being born and the bringing mother are similar. Is the mother also reticent?
Photo caption: LOUISE BURGEOIS in her living room at her home in Chelsea, New York
Photo caption: Louise Bourgeois The Reticent Child 2003 Fabric, marble, stainless steel and aluminum 72x 112x 36 inches. Photo by Christopher Burke , Courtesy Cheim & Read, Galerie Karsten, Galerie Hauser & Wirth
Photo caption: Louise Bourgeois Couple 2002. Fabric, hanging piece 171/2 x 7 x 61/2 inches. Photo by Christopher Burke
Photo caption: Louise Bourgeois The Reticent Child (detail) 2003. Fabric, marble, stainless steel, and aluminum 72x 112x 36 inches. Photo by Christopher Burke , Courtesy Cheim & Read, Galerie Karsten, Galerie Hauser & Wirth
The desk beside BOURGEOIS’s living room table, which holds tins containing pencils, crayons, and oilsticks, among other things she uses during the day
Photo caption: Louise Bourgeois Ode a Ma Mere 1995 Suite of 9 drypoint etchings on paper. Each 12 x 12 inches. Photo by Christopher Burke. Courtesy Harlan & Weaver, New York.
Photo caption: LOUISE BOURGEOIS with SPIDER IV in 1996. Photo by Peter Bellany
“THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN MY LIFE WAS MY MOTHER”
Photo caption: Louise Bourgeois Maman 1999. Steel and marble. 365x 351 x 403 cm. Photo by Marcus Leith. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.
Photo caption: Louise Bourgeois CELL XIV (PORTRAIT) 2000 Steel, glass, wood, metal, and red fabric 74 x 48 x 48 inches. Photo by Christopher Burke, Courtesy Cheim & Read, Galerie Karsten, Galerie Hauser & Wirth
Photo caption: Fabric sculptures in progress in the artist's Brooklyn studio in 2000. Photo by Christopher Burke
Shelving on the east wall of BOURGEOIS’s living room holding books and archival material. Chairs in the foreground are used for participants of her Sunday salon
"In all my work there is the fear of abandonment and seperation."
LB: The mother is not reticent. I talk all the time. She is unsure of herself and how to handle the situation.
RM: Youalso completed a related suite of 82 double‑sided drawings, titled Ii Etait Reticent, mais Je l'ai Rhvélé. How does this connect to The Reticent Child sculpture?
LB: I am determined to make the reticent child out. I want to understand my son. I want him to like me and not be afraid.
RM: A few recent sculptures, Cell XI (Portrait), Cell XIV (Portrait),and Cell XXIII (Portrait), are cages that contain three‑headed configurations. Do they represent a triumvirate of emotions, personalities, or fears?
LB: The multiple heads of my figures are the different sides of the same person. Conflict and ambivalence are everywhere.
RM: A 2004 drawing states, "I had a flashback of something that never existed." What does this mean?
LB: You are presented with a feeling or a vision of something that is very vivid, and yet you have your doubts. You're not sure of this recall.
RM: Sculptures such as Obese, Bulimic, Anorexic, and Hysterical display a fusion of both physical and psychological states. How do
you achieve this balance?
LB: Our emotions affect our body. Body language is revealing. These conditions have been associated mostly with women.
RM: Among your most recent works are ambitious suites of drawings, numbering 50 to 100 sheets each. They seem to suggest a time,
consuming ritual, but what is the psychological expression of the repetition, amalgamation, and massing of line, shape, and color?
LB: My drawings are about the passing of time. The repetition gives a physical quality to the mark‑making. I want to bring my whole body into the process of drawing. The lines are like knitting. They are like a heartbeat. They have the rhythm of the unconscious.
"IN ALL MY WORK THERE IS THE FEAR OF ABANDONMENT AND SEPARATION "
Photo caption: Louise Bourgeois The Good Mother 2003 Watercolor, ink, and pencil on music paper 36 x 24" inches. Photo by Christopher Burke, Courtesy Cheim & Read Galerie Karsten Greve, Galerie Hauser & Wirth
Photo caption: Louise Bourgeois Tous les Cinque II / 2004 Mixed media on paper Each 9 1/2 x 8 inches. Photo by Christopher Burke, Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.
The living room of Louise BOURGEOIS's home. The table at the back is where Bourgeois spends most of her day, working on drawings, prints, and pieces in fabric.