Crawling through Louise Bourgeois’s Creative Process at MoMA

A new exhibition shows the threads of thought that underlined the artist’s work

Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). Spider Woman. 2004. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of The Easton Foundation. © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

Louise Bourgeois’s long career began and ended with printmaking; she launched her legacy with the medium and returned to it in the years before her death in 2010. While Bourgeois is widely associated with her monumental spider sculptures, a new MoMA retrospective gives due attention to the practice that marked both the genesis and the evolution of her formidable oeuvre.

Grandeur aside, Louise Bourgeois’s spiders showcase a superlative understanding of female complexity. Strength, fear, anxiety, and pride converge in a mighty symbol of the artist’s lengthy practice; but the large-scale sculptures and installations she’s renowned for began as small, powerful prints.

Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait is a new exhibition exploring 265 of the artist’s prints alongside 23 of her sculptures, nine drawings, and two paintings. Beyond showcasing artworks that are lesser-known, An Unfolding Portrait lends depth and dimension to Bourgeois’s more recognizable sculptures and installations. It introduces familiar motifs such as the spiral, the spider, the mother, and the female body, and it follows her poetic return to the medium that started it all.

Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). Plate 8 of 9 from the illustrated book Ode à Ma Mère. 1995. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

The exhibition is organized thematically, beginning with “Architecture Embodied.” Her early photogravure titled Femme Maison (1984) is a prime example of her hybrid human-architectural figures.

“In pursuit of emotional balance and stability, Bourgeois often made use of visual symbols derived from architecture,” the exhibition’s press release explains. “Her early study of mathematics may have attracted her to the rationality of the built environment.”

From there, An Unfolding Portrait progresses through “Abstracted Emotions,” “Fabric of Memory,” “Alone and Together,” and “Forces of Nature,” concluding with “Lasting Impressions.”

Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). №4 of 34 from the fabric illustrated book Ode à l’Oubli. 2002. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

Hailing from a French family in the antique tapestry business, the Paris-born, New York City-based artist integrated textiles into her later-life work. She became well-known for her textile sculptures, but she also experimented with prints on fabric and fabric books such as Ode a L’Oubli, constructed out of monogrammed linens from her wedding in 1938. This nostalgia is a thread connecting her entire body of work, though many of her most significant experiences were traumatizing rather than sentimental.

“Alone and Together,” much like “Abstracted Emotions,” sees Bourgeois working through the dark anxieties that plagued her — from the long-lasting damage of her father’s affair to the untimely loss of her beloved mother, whom she described as “deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and useful as a spider.”

Following a period of psychoanalysis between the 1950s and ’60s, Bourgeois cultivated her interest in the human body. Much of her subsequent work is of a sexual nature, referencing not only sex itself but the familial relationships and “interdependencies” it yields. Many of Bourgeois’s artworks bridge sexuality and the organic body, as exemplified throughout “Forces of Nature” as well.

Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). Eccentric Growth I. 2006. Collection Louise Bourgeois Trust and Osiris, New York. © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

The exhibition culminates in a hanging bronze sculpture titled Arch of Hysteria (1993), surrounded by etchings of fluid, primordial forms created in the years just before her death. Though 15 years separate these etchings from the sculpture, their juxtaposition is a harmonious one that reveals her thematic consistency.

“No matter the medium, Bourgeois’s vision remained singular,” the press release points out. “Related sculptures, drawings, and paintings show that for Bourgeois there was no ‘rivalry’ between the mediums. For her, she noted, ‘They say the same thing in different ways.’ ”

“Her prints and their evolving states of development are especially revealing as they provide the opportunity to see Bourgeois’s imagination unfold,” explains curator Deborah Wye. “To view such sequences is akin to looking over the artist’s shoulder as she worked.”

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait.” Pictured: Arch of Hysteria (1993) with etchings from the series À l’Infini (2008) behind it. Courtesy of Rachel Gould.

Needless to say, Bourgeois was a masterful artist and her work was pioneering. But it was her process that was particularly revelatory. Her ability to amalgamate depression and optimism; anxiety and exaltation; power and doubt was exceptional, and her finished products possess a moving and relatable balance between strength and vulnerability. In a word, her work is unconditionally human.

“Through art, [Bourgeois] made her emotions tangible and sought to understand and cope with painful memories, jealousy, anger, anxiety, loneliness, and despair,” the catalogue describes. “Art was her tool of ‘survival,’ she said, and her ‘guarantee of sanity.’ ”

Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). №5 of 14 from the installation set À l’Infini. 2008. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchased with funds provided by Agnes Gund, Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis, Marlene Hess and James D. Zirin, Maja Oeri and Hans Bodenmann, and Katherine Farley and Jerry Speyer, and Richard S. Zeisler Bequest (by exchange). © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, NY 10019 through January 28, 2018. A version of this article originally appeared on Culture Trip.

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