"Goose-bumps": Louise Bourgeois at the Guggenheim Museum in New York

"Goose-bumps": Louise Bourgeois at the Guggenheim Museum in New York

June 27,2008 - September 28, 2008

by  Peggy Cyphers  July 24, 2008

Louise Bourgeois' Retrospective, currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, solidifies her status as a master sculptor and showcases her inarguable aesthetic triumph, situating her solidly amongst the greatest artists of the last two centuries. Bourgeois, who was born in Paris in 1911, and immigrated to New York in 1938, emerged a key contributor to the art world's visual language systems, which has secured her rank among the great women of history.  She's not exactly a queen, movie star or rock star, but rather a female shaman of the underworld. Her iconic figure, like the spider, is all brain and guts on that nimble skeleton, quick to thread a web around her viewers mind and send bristling goose-bumps down their spines! The artists' web, the tangles of her life's work, skewed with her many insidious additions like a spider’s jewels of flies and mosquitoes, creates an intriguing vortex, concentric yet never rambling. (Indeed, perhaps it’s is no accident that her focus is so intense upon on a web-making creature, as our lives have become so integrated as a result of the world-wide web and within the international net of the internet.

Bougeois has a skillful and creepy, but politically correct manner of spooling out metaphors from core psychological and emotional epicenters of trauma; to hint at unconscious horror from the safety of an armchair. As one enters the dramatically-domed museum, its retro "space age" aura consumes the senses, as the body reacts immediately to its architectural theatre. Her "Spider Couple" beautifully contrasts with the Guggenheim's famed architecture, lacking the logic of a Fibonacci spiral and breeding a breath of foreign and perverse air into the white-washed arena. Louise's spider's are tactfully positioned in an effort to be more dangerous in the sterile circular room where the spider is left with no crooks or crannies in which to begin the creative process of weaving its sticky web. Bourgeois' main sculpture here, "Spider Couple" consists of two entwined arachnids just above human height, both dwarfed by the massive white cocoon space. The audience feels a sci-fi fantasy tension prompting the question: what could be if these insect were alive, and socially with, what is actually happening at this classy museum on Fifth Avenue. The massive spiders probe us to reconsider who's boss!? Metaphors abound both seen and unseen. Not messy enough for a web/studio, so clean!  This tension between the figure and space is iconic and powerfully dramatized inside the Guggenheim’s inimitable interior.

Climbing ever higher on the ramping floors one views mini stages of her distinguished career, where lexicons of past years' labors are spiraling also through space and mind, strewn with personal vignettes, assemblies of antique underclothes and doors and objects of uncertain odd demeanors.  Somehow her use of the museum space makes it feel shaft-like, more male, less feminine, and accentuates the uncomfortable slant of the runway floor. Each sculptural work from top to bottom relies on its arrangement to produce stories that make one consider time, both intimately and culturally.  Louise Bourgeois' subject works well in the niches, and  descending the ramp, we embark on a fun-house ride through her remarkable artistic legacy. 

Louise Bourgeois' marble carvings amaze her fans, as spectators’ views shift from soft to hard, traversing one of these well-hewn marvels. As a master sculptor, she knows the art of carving marble, and evinced by her impressive technical skill with the medium as in the work "Cumul 1" 1968.  Each work evokes the kinds of tensions that are simple yet profound, between and within the works, from rough to smooth.

Her installations of soft and mixed media sculptures, and her playful remixing of materials (mainly recycled or non-fabricated) are coated with the aura of their provenance. The reality of touch and sensation that she evidences are intimate and not always sexual. She taps into an exciting, sensory world of adolescence: A young creature at the brink of sexual awakening, forming opinions, when no model works for proper human relations and seems further askew by what must take place in the home. In "Red Room", Bourgeois’ childhood reminisces create a visual tribute to her family. She allows all to enter her world, but also prompts entry into our own unconscious mental cities.

Time past and time future encompass the show and with those boundaries as markers, Bougeois seduces materials to make us ponder the fragility of time; viz., our own eminent deaths. This and more haunts, and allows the assemblies of her installations to create stories in shamanistic reunions of experience. That is why women were studying them with such protracted attention that opening night in June 2008. Back downstairs, near the bar, distracted men talked about the last show by Cai Guo-Qiang "Inopportune: Stage One" with all its dangling cars, violence and sensationalism. Tonight's vignettes appear sweetly sinister, weirdly demure in a Victorian school girl way, with surreal layers of beauty on every surface. They tell an abstract tale of coming to consciousness, both mentally and sexually.

 Looking down from the top floor of the Guggenheim it's exciting to see the "Spider Couple" occupying the rotunda. The metaphor of the spider as a goddess-- one who nurtures and takes life away—is constantly at work, weaving a gooey web only it can traverse without being trapped. The entire museum is a cocoon and the viewer is now caught. Halfway down the ramp are a sampling of her accomplished etchings, originally pages from a book, a story only Louise can tell.  But the curved, dramatically-lit wall next to them informs us of a bigger story: that she was the first woman artist to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art-- in 1982, when she was already in her seventies.  

Last March we visited Louise in her brownstone in Chelsea - its beauty and her beauty crumbling and dark, as is her eyesight.  Artists who alluringly attend her salon find a table of treats, chocolates and single malts, in the center of the shabby room. Yet we know the treat is to be here with Louise.  She sits safely in her corner under a lamp. We are attracted to her salon or rather, the memory of it as it might have been before her age began to challenge her body. Her vision is failing from cataracts, but she still can respond to the color red, like a spider that is attracted to the warmth of life in the blood. That day, my student named Zoli, brought a bright red painting unaware of Louise's passion for red, and was soon surprised by her response of, "Red, Red, Red!!" Lucio Pozzi also came that Sunday with his muse and Robert Storr arrived flamboyantly late. Other than that, she was less interested as each artist passed their art around the circle. I showed her a small work called "Spider Woman, for L.B" and a friend took a striking photo of us alongside the painting.

In the 1960's Louise began working with new materials like plaster, latex and resin, which aligned her art with a younger generation of artists such as Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman, who were adapting a more organic process to the sculptural art. Its fascinating to see the works she did during the 90's and how her visual poetry, always concentrically evolving, continues to draw viewer in, like a queen spider in her lair.  As she is quoted as saying in the Guggenheim's literature, "...the spiral means that a theme can disappear and reappear twenty years later."  Her earliest work continues to be relevant even to this day; like a great wine the taste does not diminish with age but is rather enhanced, as do these multiple experiences of Louise Bourgeois’ amazing oevre.