The Tate Modern opened in May 2000 when I was six years old. During its inauguration year, a huge steel spider made its home in the Turbine Hall, allowing the viewer to walk around its long spindly legs and look up at its body, or down onto it from the above gallery floors. This oversized insect was created by Louise Bourgeois and titled Maman. Despite its maternal title, the huge structure terrified my childlike self, and its memory still haunts me a little every time I visit the Tate. Now, a softer exhibition of the late artist’s work, complete with many more spiders, is on display in a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In New York, MoMA’s display of 1,200 works is predominantly made up of two-dimensional works on paper, fabric and books. Titled An Unfolding Portrait, the exhibition moves thematically, unveiling the many layers to the multifaceted life of Louise Bourgeois (1911 Paris – 2010 New York), who was born in France and who moved to New York in her 20s. Bourgeois didn’t turn to sculpture until she was almost 40; she began as a painter and printmaker. From the beginning of her life, right up until its end, the artist explored themes of gender fluidity, sexuality and intimacy, and, while these seem timely topics of interest now, they would have been much more provocative in the 1940s. In fact, the spider that so scarred me as a child, and a recurring motif in the artist’s work, never intended to have a menacing impact at all: ‘Why the spider?’ Bourgeois writes in one of her illustrated books. ‘Because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and useful as a spider.’
This exhibition at MoMA is the third retrospective devoted to Bourgeois at the Museum. In fact, the first solo exhibition of a woman’s work at the museum was organised by the same curator, Deborah Wye, in 1982. This exhibition emphasises the impact of childhood trauma on the adult woman, Bourgeois having suffered betrayal by her father having an affair with another woman while her mother fell ill. The artist’s mother never recovered, and her father’s mistress moved into the family home under the guise as an English tutor for his children. Outside the doors that open on to the show is a large painting that shows a bloody red pregnant woman, with cords coming from her stomach and head. Beside her a number of emotive statements are printed in French: ‘Ma mere avait raison. Souffir et mourir (My mother was right. Suffer and die)’ reads one, while another reads ‘Ah! Maman J’etouffe. Je n’ai jamais souffert ainsi (Ah! Mum, I’m choking. I have never suffered so.’ The work is extremely sensitive, and sets the tone for what lays inside the exhibition.
The pink, pastel, watercolours that greet the viewer remain a constant throughout the show, with seemingly gentle media making up the majority of the work. However, below the surface, the artist’s work is anything but mild, often confronting subjects of a sensitive, controversial and at times, sexual nature. Lullaby, consists of a series of 25 red screen prints of phallic shapes pasted on top of printed-paper. These appear in the same space as fabric artist books with such sentimental titles as ODE A L’OUBLI (ode to the forgotten) and Keep Me Together, Do Not Abandon Me, Hold My Bones Together.
Also on display amongst the two-dimensional work is the display of an ongoing repetition of the character of Saint Sebastian, the martyred saint persecuted for his Christian faith during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. Bourgeois transformed the figure into a woman, reshaping her over eight years. She begins her life as a thin, pencil-drawn lady, evolving into a curvaceous figure that has been cut off with arrows pointing to various parts of her body, mimicking the arrows that are often depicted in artistic depictions of the Roman saint.
Alongside the drawings, and prints on paper and fabric that make up the bulk of the exhibition, are a number of sculptural pieces – the medium Bourgeois is most well known for today. These appear at the beginning of the exhibition as vertical, wooden sculptures like Pillar, 1949-50 and Figure, 1954, which mimic high-rise apartment buildings. The most powerful work though, is Arch of Hysteria, 1993, bronze and patina, which sees a golden woman suspended from the ceiling, arching her back to the sky. The floating lady hangs in the centre of a room covered in red and pink hand-coloured etchings called A l’Infini, 2007, meaning ‘to infinity.’ Bourgeois has been quoted as saying: ‘My early work is the fear of falling. Later on, it became the art of falling. How to fall without hurting yourself. Later on, it is the art of hanging in there.’ This statement seems poignant when read alongside the sight of what is on display alongside this sculpture, that has been surrounded by images in which limbs overstretch from every-direction in what looks like a loss of control. The deep reds that reflect from the golden bronze embody a sense of clutching on to something that is slipping away.
A sculptural spider like Maman is present here at MoMA too, though much smaller than the creature I was exposed to at the Tate as a child. Spider, 1997, stands over a mesh-wire structure that houses bone, glass, rubber, silver and wood. This insect guards a case filled with fragments of a plethora of materials, probably sentiments picked up by the artist throughout her life. This spider, a cousin to the creature once living at the Tate, embodies the role of the mother, playing protector to the smaller, more fragile objects that lay under her care.
The exhibition in New York is an intimate pink-toned glimpse into the life and mind of Louise Bourgeois. By focusing on the two-dimensional – works on paper – that often function as preparation for something bigger, the viewer is offered an extremely personal glimpse into the artist’s mind and practice. The show is well worth a visit.
Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait is on display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York until 28 January 2018