Louise BourgeoisThe Woven Child (in context)W ORCESTER ART MUSEUM
Louise Bourgeois:The Woven Child (in context)October 21, 2006 – February 25, 2007“ All my work in the past fifty years,all my subjects, have found theirinspiration in my childhood.My childhood has never lost itsmagic, it has never lost its mystery,and it has never lost its drama.” 1Louise Bourgeois, who at 95 was describedrecently as “the oldest of young artists,” 2 has beenmaking art since the 1940s yet continues to beone of the most inventive and influential artistsof our time. Indeed, her career has spannedSurrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Post-minimalistand feminist-inspired art, and installation art,but her work always has remained fiercely independentfrom any singular style or movement.Trained as a painter, printmaker, and draftsperson,Bourgeois has experimented with a range ofmaterials for sculptures over the years (includingmarble, plaster, bronze, wood, and latex) and inthe late 1990s, she embarked on what has becomean extraordinary body of sculptural and twodimensionalworks in fabric. The Worcester exhibition focuses on a selection of Bourgeois’fabric works from 1996-2006, and includesthe U.S. premiere of The Woven Child (2002),a sculpture recently acquired by the Museum.This late-in-life chapter of her career is especiallysignificant because it brings Bourgeois back toher “original aesthetic impulse”—working withtextiles. 3 At the age of 12 she began to work ather mother’s side in the family business ofrestoring Medieval and Renaissance tapestries inAntony, France. She assumed the role of ‘dessinateur,’redrawing the sections of the missingparts of the antique tapestries, which would thenbe rewoven. 4Cover: The Woven Child, 2002, fabric, stainless steel, glass,and wood, 70 x 35 x 21 inches, Stoddard Acquisition Fund,2005.284. Photo: Christopher BurkeCouple, 2001, fabric, 20 x 6.5 x 3 inches. Collection of JerryGorovoy, New York. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.Photo: Christopher BurkeSeven decades later, Bourgeois’ lifelong relationto textiles and preoccupation with the past hasresulted in her unconventional use of garmentsand linens (often scavenged from her closets)—domestic, fragile materials not typically usedfor sculpture but laden with human associationssuch as warmth, intimacy, and vulnerability.The fabric work frequently takes the form offreestanding, stacked columns and stuffedfigures either suspended in open air or isolatedin glass and steel vitrines. These objects bornof cutting and sewing—actions Bourgeois especiallyassociates with memories of her motherrepairing tapestries—have become an idealmedium for recovering and exorcising aspectsof her childhood and family life. 5
“ I have always had the fear ofbeing separated and abandoned.The sewing is my attempt tokeep things together and makethings whole.” 6Although rooted in her lived (and gendered)experiences as daughter, wife, and mother, thecontent of Bourgeois’ art is primarily “archetypal” 7and explores the psychological and emotionaleffects of human relations, forsaking neither theintimacies nor the anxieties. The weights andpressures of close interaction (both physical andemotional) are at the heart of several importantrecurring thematics in the fabric works—thefusion of architecture and the body, images ofcoupling, the garment as a site of female experience,and the maternal subject.In a recent series of fabric towers, Bourgeoisrevisits formal and thematic terrain first exploredin the 1940s with the Personages, a group ofanthropomorphic, wooden sculptures, whichshe conceived of as surrogates for the humanfigure and deliberately installed directly on thefloor with some in groups and others solitary butalways emphasizing the relation to each other andthe space around them. In a related series createdin the 1950s, columns were formed from woodscraps and plaster fragments stacked vertebraelikeon a fixed axis. Clearly erect, their posturesappeared nonetheless unstable.When Bourgeois returned to this format usingvarious stuffed fabrics (from solid and striped toimage-laden tapestry), the effect was an emotiveidentification of the architectural with the body.For example, the human scale, flesh-pink palette,and pillow-like units of The Cold of Anxiety (2001)invoke intimate sensations. Viewing invites anawareness of the relations between the individualsections, hand sewn and stuffed, softly restingupon one another and progressively growing asthe column gains height. Yet amidst this physicalembodiment of connecting and touching,Bourgeois counters with an emotional confession—thephrase “the cold of anxiety” subtlyembroidered onto the sculpture’s surface.Much of Bourgeois’ recent fabric work has takenthe form of small stuffed figures—individuals,couples, or groups—suspended in open air orsheltered in vitrines. Despite being crudelystitched and patched together and endowed withonly minimal anatomical detail, they exude apowerful range of attitudes and emotions, fromthe amorous and playful to the anguished andrejected. Bourgeois’s cloth rag-dolls, whether maleor female, young or old, are exposed in their rawemotions and nakedness. In one Couple (2000),a female hovers slightly above her partner, her feetresting atop his and her arms wrapped tightlyaround him. In a role reversal, here it is the malewhom Bourgeois renders armless—an incomplete,helpless adult. As they dangle in the air, meaningdrifts between tender embrace and a desperateattempt to hold onto the other.The glass and steel vitrine protecting this coupleis also an integral element of Seven in a Bed(2001). It is closely related to the partially openchambers or cages of Bourgeois’ Cells (begun inthe mid-1980s), large installations whose theatricalspaces, filled with arrangements of mostly familiarThe Cold of Anxiety, 2001, fabric and steel, 82 x 12 x 10 inchesCollection of Jerry Gorovoy, New York. Courtesy Cheim &Read, New York. Photo: Christopher Burke
helplessness. 9 In an Untitled 1996 cloth andbronze sculpture, we see a tragicomic interpretationof an incapacitated, limbless female definedentirely by a suspended and stuffed, reconstructeddress that appears more like a straightjacket. Heronly appendage—long, limp, and tail-like—dangles down to the floor providing a visual andemotional counterweight to the tightly wrappedbronze coil hanging opposite her. While not altogetherempty, this “bodiless” garment unmistakablyreferences “the female experience, located inthe body, sensed from within…” 10 Although it hasleft the closet and life of the younger Bourgeoiswho wore it, the dress retains a memory of herpast, which in its resurgence in the present has thepowerful effect of “the return of the repressed.” 11Untitled, 1996, cloth, bronze, and steel, 115.5 x 43 x 35 inchesCollection of Jerry Gorovoy, New York. Courtesy Cheim &Read, New York. Photo: Christopher Burke“ Fear of abandonment has stayedwith me my whole life. It beganwhen my father left for the war.It continued when my motherdied in 1932. People ask me to‘be their mother.’ I can’t becauseI’m looking for a mother myself.” 12found objects, suggest narratives of isolation andsolitude, exposure and imprisonment. Furniturelikeyet clinical, closed yet transparent, the vitrine,while isolating the fragile figures from us, has likethe Cells the capacity “to enclose its own world ofassociations.” 8 Here, the entangled arrangementof pink bodies (some with more than one head)sprawled across a bed suggests domestic narrativesthat may have been inspired by innocent childhoodplay, adult knowledge, or a memory confusingboth. What is certain is Bourgeois’ absorptionwith the human need for security and desire toconnect. Her mute, fragile figures communicateintimacy as a tangle of pleasure and pain, aggressionand submission.Over the years, Bourgeois has created a numberof versions of a limbless (and faceless) woman,which anticipate the adult body in The WovenChild —a figure reduced to “belly, breasts andneck,” symbolic of “female fecundity” but alsoIn numerous sculptures since the mid-1980s,Bourgeois has wrestled with and paid homage tothe archetypal image of the Mother in variousexpressions of tenderness, ferocity, and inadequacy.13 At their source is the idealized memoryof her own mother, Joséphine, who died in 1932from a chronic lung ailment while in her daughter’scare (and, of course, Bourgeois’ experienceof being the mother of three sons). Even at theage of 70, Bourgeois expressed a deep connectionbetween the iconography of her art and this relation:“I felt that when I represented the two nakedbodies of the child and the mother, I can still feelher body and her love.” 14In The Woven Child (2002), Bourgeois’ dramaticreinterpretation of a subject found throughoutthe history of art—the mother and child—sheengages in dialectics of self and other, estrangementand intimacy, awkwardness and tenderness,inadequacy and promise. Bourgeois, the artist
Seven in a Bed, 2001, fabric, stainless steel, glass, and wood,68 x 33.5 x 34.5 inches. Collection of the artist. Courtesy Cheim& Read, New York. Photo: Christopher BurkeThis beginning, this “dynamic of the maternalinfantilerelation,” translates visually in TheWoven Child as an attempt to “combine themother’s viewpoint and the child’s” as subjectswho live “in and through” their bodies and inrelation to the other. 16 A glass and steel vitrineboth protects and imprisons this vulnerable pair.With its womb-like, finely woven blue nettingthat provides a more amorphous enclosure aswell as an added layer of separation around thechild, The Woven Child constitutes a melding ofsexualized space and sanctum. Another touch ofblue exposed at the mother’s neck alerts us to afragile yet lasting link between these individualbodies. For Bourgeois, the usual physical distinctionsbetween inside and outside, body andenvironment are instead decidedly mutable.and mother, imagines the maternal-infant relationin radically unconventional terms, whichchallenge the patriarchal mother who was traditionallyidealized in religious and secular imagesin Western art—from Raphael’s madonnas toMary Cassatt’s mothers.In a departure from convention, Bourgeoisreturned to her motif of the headless and limblessfemale for the mother, who is now a patchworktorso of crudely stitched scraps that neitherembraces nor gazes upon the perfect little infantcurled upon her belly. In contrast to the pristinemuslin of the child, the rag-tag mother who ispieced together with varying white remnants ofgarments and linens from Bourgeois’ past(complete with the occasional stain and defect)bares the marks of age and experience, as ifadmitting to us, “Here is what it is like to haveand be a body, to be holed up in a fleshy self.” 15Against the image of wholeness projected by theinfant, the fragmented female is a confession tomaternal feelings of inadequacy yet also anacknowledgment of the status of our incompletenessas adults, whether female or male.Because there is no implicit subject positionfrom which to experience Bourgeois’ work, adultviewers may find that they identify with parentand/or child. What is fundamental, however, ishow the mother-child relation in The WovenChild compels us to wonder, what is it like to beat the beginning of life?Ode à l’oubli, 2004, fabric and color lithographbook, 36 pages, 10.75 x 13.25 x 2 inches.Collection of the artist. Courtesy Cheim & Read,New York. Photo: Christopher BurkeAn important parallel activity to the fabricsculptures is a body of drawings, prints, andbooks executed in textiles. Ode à l’oubli (Ode toForgetfulness), a 2004 fabric and color lithographbook stitched from remnants Bourgeoishas saved throughout her life (many from herclothing and linens), reads like an index of theabstract, symbolic terrain her art has exploredover the past six decades. The palette, like muchof her work, favors blues, pinks, and reds andrecurrent motifs include egg, eye, breast, andpod shapes, spirals, arrows, stacked rectangles,and spider-web and kaleidoscopic patterns.On its 36 pages (which unbutton from thebinding to be displayed separately), “hundredsof swatches of fabric are cut and pieced,appliquéd, embroidered, tufted, rolled, woven,
Ode à l’oubli, detailquilted, layered.” 17 In addition to silks, knits,tulles, organza, and netting found throughout,Bourgeois’ monogrammed linen napkinsprovided the ground for many of the pages ofthe original book on which the limited editionis based. Here embroidered lines and stitchedseams, even the organic tracery of a lace pattern,act like a kind of three-dimensional drawingon the fabric page. Stripes and checks of dressesand tablecloths infuse the modernist grid withthe intimacy of life’s moments. Artfully interwovenwith the lived histories of the fabrics, whichmark specific relationships, places, and times,is a page of text (one of two) with Bourgeois’enigmatic remark, “I had a flashback of somethingthat never existed.”For a recent homage to mother and child,Bourgeois has composed a visual Lullaby (2006).In this suite of 25 silkscreens on fabric, redsilhouettes sit atop fabric pages patterned withthe staffs of music paper. She frequently hasturned to this “found” pattern for drawings andsketchbooks (such as Memory Traces, 2002, andFugue, 2003), sometimes as an organizing structureand at other times as a foil of regularity toreact against. Here, the swollen and curved shapes,so organic and individual in character, contrastsharply with the strict linearity and repetition ofthe staff. Yet in their translation onto fabric, thestaffs, too, have an element of softness, a bit likethe blue stripes on the ticking of a mattress orpillow. 18 This exquisite coupling of emotionalintimacy and formal bravura calls to mind ArthurMiller’s observation about Bourgeois’ work:“…It is an art, first of the eye of course, butfinally of the interior life into which vision leads.In effect, she is as though talking profoundly toherself, just loudly enough to be overheard.” 19Susan L. StoopsCurator of Contemporary Art
ABOUT THE ARTISTLouise Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911 and moved toNew York City in 1938 where she has since lived and worked.She is the first woman to be given a retrospective at the Museumof Modern Art in New York (1982), and will be the subject of aninternationally touring retrospective in 2007 being organized byTate Modern in London. She is represented in New York byCheim & Read.Louise bourgeois, 2003Photo: Nanda LanfrancoNOTES1. Louise Bourgeois, “Louise Bourgeois: Album” (1994), inBourgeois, Destruction of the Father/Reconstruction of theFather: Writings and Interviews 1923-1997, ed. Marie-LaureBernadac and Hans-Ulrich Obrist (London: VioletteEditions, 1998), 277.2. Frances Morris, Louise Bourgeois: Stitches in Time (London:August Projects in collaboration with the Irish Museum ofModern Art, Dublin and the Museum of ContemporaryArt, Miami, 2005), 10.3. Morris, 324. Ibid., 20.5. At the time of her first retrospective at The Museum ofModern Art in New York, Bourgeois created a photo essaytitled “Child Abuse,” for Artforum (vol. 20, 1983, 40-47) inwhich she made public the details of her conflicted andsexually traumatic family upbringing. At its center was theconfession that her father’s English mistress was broughtinto the house as the children’s tutor, where she lived for tenyears. She describes that having to ignore this infidelity andtolerate her mother’s acquiescence during her formativeyears, put her in the role of a pawn and effectively living alie. Since then, this episode figures prominently in most ofthe written material about the artist—too much so accordingto some noted feminist critics such as Mieke Bal andAnne Wagner. But her biographer, Robert Storr, concludes“Bourgeois suffered terrible damage as a result of the stressshe experienced in the sexually immature years of her childhoodand early adolescence. The obsessional return to thosetraumatic times, and the hope-against-hope that thatdamage can be undone or patched has been the drivingforce behind everything she has made.” Robert Storr,“A Sketch for a Portrait: Louise Bourgeois,” in LouiseBourgeois (London: Phaidon, 2003), 40.6. Bourgeois, “Gerald Matt in Conversation with LouiseBourgeois,” in Louise Bourgeois. Aller-Retour, ed. GeraldMatt and Peter Weiermair (Verlag für moderne KunstNürnberg and Kunsthalle Wien, 2005), 201.7. Storr, 33.8. Rosalind Krauss, “Magician’s Game: Decades ofTransformation,” 200 Years of American Sculpture (NewYork, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1976). Excerpt inJerry Gorovoy and Pandora Tabatabai Asbaghi, LouiseBourgeois: Blue Days and Pink Days (Milan: FoundazionePrada, 1977), 100.9. Storr, 74. Harmless Woman (1969) and Torso (Self-Portrait)(1963-4) are but two such sculptures. The faceless femalerecurs as a motif in the artist’s Femme Maison (WomanHouse) images in which a house variously sits atop nakedlegs and torso. These appeared initially in the 1940s aspaintings, drawings, and prints, and most recently in 2001as a fabric sculpture.10.Robert Hughes, “Ashambles in Venice,” Time, June 28,1993. Excerpt in Gorovoy and Asbaghi, 166.11.This phrase by Bourgeois is one of two pages of text in herfabric book, Ode à l’oubli, 2004.12.Bourgeois’ reflection on The Woven Child forwarded to theauthor on June 14, 2006 via e-mail by studio director,Wendy Williams.13.Storr, 43. The multi-breasted She-Fox (1985) is a notableexample, as well as the ongoing series of Spiders (begun inthe 1990s). Symbolically, the spider—both protector andpredator—connects to the family’s business activities ofspinning, weaving, and sewing, which took place (as theyoung Louise knew firsthand) under the skilled and watchfuleye of her mother.14.Bourgeois in conversation with Deborah Wye (1981) inBernadac and Obrist, 128.15. Ann M. Wagner, “Bourgeois Prehistory, or the Ransom ofFantasies,” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 22, no. 2 (1999), 23.16.Mignon Nixon, Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Storyof Modern Art (London, MIT Press, 2005), 9, 67. Nixon’sbook considers Bourgeois within the context of the psychoanalytictheories of Melanie Klein, which reject the Oedipalnarratives of Freud to instead center on the role of themother in child analysis. In her reading of Klein’s account ofthe formation of subjectivity, Nixon describes “the infant’sprimitive ego as attempting to ‘build up’ a relation to theoutside world, beginning with the mother’s body.” (183)17.Amy Newman, “Louise Bourgeois Builds a Book From theFabric of Life,” The New York Times, October 17, 2004.18. In written comments from the Bourgeois Studio forwardedto the author by Cheim & Read in July 2006, the red formsare derived from the outline of tracings done by the artist ofobjects she owns. She began to see these shapes as an equivalentto musical notes and she placed them in sequence likea musical score. The curving quality of the forms refers tothe rocking that the mother does to put the child to sleep,hence the title.19. Arthur Miller, Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory, 1982-1993. Excerpt in Gorovoy and Asbaghi, 216.
Lullaby, 2006, silkscreen on fabric, suite of 25, 15.25 x 11.375 inches each. Collection of the artist, courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.Photo: Christopher BurkeThis exhibition is generously supported by the Don and Mary Melville Contemporary Art Fund.Other generous support provided by WICN Public Radio 90.5 FM, New England’s Jazz & Folk Station.WORCESTER ART MUSEUM FIFTY-FIVE SALISBURY STREET, WORCESTER, MA 01609WED.- SUN. 11-5, THIRD THURS. 11- 8, SAT. 10-5 508.799.4406 WWW.WORCESTERART.ORG