Louise Bourgeois obituary
Inventive, disturbing sculptor who transformed the human body and made the spider a central image
Michael McNay guardian.co.uk,
Monday 31 May 2010 22.50 BST Article history
Artist Louise Bourgeois with one of her sculptures, Baroque (1970), at Moma in New York. Photograph: Ted Thai/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Until she was in her 60s Louise Bourgeois, who has died aged 98, was known to the New York glitterati merely as the charming French lady who appeared at private views on the arm of her American husband, the art historian Robert Goldwater. There had been a few decently received shows of Bourgeois's own work in the 1940s and early 1950s, but then the abstract expressionists swept the decks clean.
Nothing could withstand the sheer artistic elan and commercial drive of Pollock, Rothko, and De Kooning and the backing of Clement Greenberg, a critic whose thumbs up or down meant life or death. It was not until the Museum of Modern Art gave Bourgeois a retrospective in 1982, when she was already 70, that she at last took her place as queen of New York, one of the most inventive and disturbing sculptors of the century, and later of course the first artist to to tackle a commission for a temporary work to command the vast spaces of the new Tate Modern's turbine hall.
She was born in Paris on Christmas day but, as a girl, was not the gift-wrapped child her father, Louis Bourgeois, had hoped for. Eventually, and despite the addition of a son to the family, he came to adore her for her talent and spirit, but she repaid him with hate for his explosive temper and his domination of the household and for teasing her in front of the others - humiliating her as she saw it - and she despised him for serially betraying her long suffering mother.
That was nothing to the hate she felt for Sadie Gordon, the young Englishwoman her father hired to look after the children and teach them English; Louise, who was 10 at the time, learned her lessons well, but had a sharp ear for gossip and soon understood that her governess had also usurped her mother's place in papa's bed. Bourgeois drew on her childhood experiences for the rest of her life, and in 1974 created one of her most difficult sculptures (difficult for the spectator, that is), a big, lurid piece called Destruction of the Father, composed largely of what seem to be body parts.
Bourgeois by name, bourgeois in fact: the family was well off but not wealthy. Louis and his wife Joséphine restored medieval and renaissance tapestries and sold them from their gallery in Paris. Louise showed no special talent for art, but despite that was always drawing, so one day her mother asked her to help by drawing in a missing section of tapestry as a template for the stitching to follow.Everybody in her parents' workshop applauded her effort and after that auspicious beginning she helped out often. "I became an expert at drawing legs and feet ... That is how my art started," she said.
For Destruction of the Father, Bourgeois bought hunks of mutton and beef, decidely on the bone, and cast them in plaster then covered the plaster with latex rubber. She put them in a cave-like structure lit with a red glow. And although Bourgeois maintained that her autobiography was not necessary to an understanding of her art, after the huge success of her MoMa show she talked often about her childhood and its effect on her.
The Destruction piece, she said, was a kind of dream in which the children turn on the father over the dining table and dismember him. It was Bourgeois's way of purging fear by aggression; and, she added, was confined to her art. Indeed when she had made her escape from home she grew to love her father - the body language of photographs of her with him on his visits to New York say it all - and she was devastated when he died in 1951.
When she was in her 90s, an editor asked her to pick out one book that had meant a lot to her: she chose, not one of the great classics of French literature, but Bonjour Tristesse, the elegant best seller by the 18 year old Françoise Sagan, published in 1954, in which the heroine describes her father: "He was young for his age [and] I soon noticed that he lived with a woman. It took me rather longer to realise that it was a different one every six months. But gradually his charm, my new easy life, and my own disposition led me to accept it"
At the age of 18 Bourgeois had left school for the Sorbonne, where she studied mathematics. She took a degree in 1932, but her mother died the same year and she switched to the study of art. Her father thought modern artists were wastrels and refused to support her, so she joined classes where translators were needed for American students and received tuition free.
Then she fetched up in the studio of Fernand Léger. He took one look at her drawings and presciently told her she was a sculptor, not a painter. When she opened a print shop beside her father"s tapestry gallery, Louis again helped his daughter on the grounds that she had entered the world of commerce. But one day Goldwater walked in, bought a couple of Picasso prints from her and, as she put it: "In between talks about surrealism and the latest trends, we got married." It was 1938 and they sailed to the United States, where he resumed his job as professor of art at New York University.
After he had died, in 1974, she said that he had never deceived her, never lost his temper, and supported her throughout the marriage - but she also cast aspersions on the profession of art history and the boredom of discussions of something she saw as a male usurpation of the real business of art. It sounds less like an affair of the heart than a refuge in need.
In 1958 they moved to a brownstone at West 22nd Street in Chelsea where she both worked and lived for the rest of her life."I am an American artist, not a French one," she remarked in later life, but although she took American citizenship in her own right in 1955 and spent most of her very long life there, nothing about her work is much like the bravura one-off confidence of American artists as far apart as Pollock or Johns or Warhol, which, in any case, she dismissed as macho art.
Her own work derives from the body, or rather, from her perception of the body: she labelled one distorted torso, with many orifices and breast like shapes, swollen and distended, a self portrait because that, she said, was how she felt about her physical self, and by extension, how women generally felt even while they studied Vogue or Harpers. Bourgeois had her first solo show of paintings in 1945 at the highly regarded Bertha Schaefer gallery in New York and then took part in two group shows, at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Peggy Guggenheim's gallery (which was to figure prominently in the success of the abstract expressionists). These paintings were far from negligible; in fact, painting for painting it could be persuasively argued that her 1944 canvas Natural History, a symbolical representation in blood colours of female fecundity, is better than equivalent early works by Rothko and Pollock. As always, this canvas was based on her own experience.
Soon after their marriage, she and Goldwater returned briefly to France to adopt a French boy, Michel, because she had convinced herself that she could not conceive. Within a year, in 1940, she had given birth to another son, Jean-Louis, and in 1941 another, Alain. Her first two shows of sculpture were in 1949 and 1950, tall abstract figures in groups, a bit like giant clothes pegs, and carved in balsa wood because it was soft and possible to work without noise or dirt to disturb a young family. They might just have been inspired by Giacometti, but in these as in all her other work she is a true original.
After 1950 she went the full decade without showing, though MoMa bought one of her pieces; in 1960 she was in shows in Paris and at the Whitney, then in 1966 the critic Lucy Lippard, who, like so many New Yorkers, had known her effectively as Goldwater's appendage, saw her work, was astonished by it, and included it in the show she was organising called Eccentric Abstraction.
From then Mrs Goldwater's star was in the ascendant. Bourgeois put down her original conviction of her infertility to hysteria, and Arch of Hysteria is one of her most compelling sculptural images; it recurs in her work in the 1990s as a horizontal body, either male or female, arching its back in orgasm or pain or both. "The subject of pain is the business I am in," she has written, and one of her arches is set in a cell, one of a sequence of unimaginably bleak spaces, one would have said, except that she imagined them.
At the same time she was capable of remarkably beautiful work like her Topiary pieces, wonderland trees of steel blossoming with blue beads and supported on a trunk which is a little girl in a real shift, like Degas's little dancers: an Ovidian metamorphosis of power and charm combined.
And then she went back to her past with some remarkable tapestry and fabric pieces. There are a couple of strikingly exotic male heads in tapestry and orgiastic groups like the yards and yards of erotic Hindu relief sculptures on Lakshmana temple in Khajuraho, but Bourgeois's figures are made of terry towelling and look like innocent soft toys. 'Through all this she was seeking not so much for the individual as for an archetype. All those breasts and bellies, half human, half beast, have their origin in the most ancient of fertility sculptures, the little oolitic limestone Michelin figure of around 24,000 years BC, the so called Willendorf Venus. Just as she showed women as the irreducible sum of their organs, so she made a latex sculpture that is clearly the male genitalia but which she called Fillette (little girl, possibly because her little girlhood, like Simone de Beauvoir's, was the period of total ignorance and fear of sex common to the time and class she was born into). She tucked this piece under her arm like a handbag and took it with her to be photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe.
She never rated photographers but co-operated with them well, from the early family snapshots and the pictures of her as a young New Yorker with hip-length hair to this session that yielded the wonderful image of Bourgeois in a black coat like a great bird and with an unreadable, faintly sinister smile on her beautiful ancient face sculpted with the eroded grooves of age.
In the late 1990s she began using the spider as a central image. Beside her huge steel watchtowers in the Tate project of 1999-2000 was a 35 foot spider, much loved by children; there was another gigantic spider a little later in the Rockefeller Plaza in New York, and smaller spiders cropped up in her Cell pieces. Art could hardly get less classical, and that was of course the point. The children knew what Bourgeois was about. These arachnids were called Maman, and though the spinning they represented was also a metaphor for the activity of art, Bourgeois made them in remote tribute to Joséphine, the put upon, patient, inventive, tireless mother.
Bourgeois's studio manager reported that she continued working until last week. Two of her sons, Alain and Jean-Louis, survive her, but her adopted son, Michel, died before her.
• Louise Bourgeois, painter and sculptor, born 25 December 1911; died 31 May 2010