Essay by Valerie Fletcher
Louise Bourgeois’s remarkable career spans seven decades. Born in Paris to a family of tapestry craftsmen, she married the American art historian Robert Goldwater and moved to New York in 1938, where she continued to live and work. Initially a painter, Bourgeois turned to sculpture after World War II. Using the roof of her apartment building as a work space, she constructed a series of stark, upright, abstract figures known as Personages. Their titles, such as Persistent Antagonism, reveal the artist’s angst.
Much of her work is motivated by personal traumatic events and the resultant psychological states. Although Bourgeois refers to autobiographical sources, her sculptures communicate universal concerns and emotions. She addresses identity, gender, childhood, sexuality, motherhood, and the continuing power of past and current experiences.
Bourgeois absorbed key ideas from avant-garde art movements, notably surrealism, primitivism, expressionism, and conceptualism, as well as from non-art sources such as psychoanalysis and feminism. In the early and mid-1960s, she worked with malleable materials such as plaster and latex to create organic, biomorphic forms that often alluded to sexuality, fertility, and growth. As her works garnered critical acclaim, Bourgeois began to reveal details of her childhood and her angry ambivalence toward her father, who had dominated the family and brazenly kept a mistress in the family home.
Not until the 1980s did Bourgeois have an ample studio, one in which she could work on a much larger scale. Experimenting with many kinds of found objects, she constructed room-sized environments she called “Cells.” Usually enclosed in metal fencing or old wooden doors and always devoid of figures, the Cell compositions suggest solitude and isolation, voluntary or otherwise. Prisonlike and claustrophobic, these eerie environments are physical manifestations of psychic space.
Bourgeois first began to sculpt in marble in the late 1960s, selecting her stones from the famous quarries around Carrara in Italy. Despite the hardness of the materials, she often arrived at suggestive organic forms. She liked the transformative process of working from an inert block: “The drilling begins the process by negating the stone….The cube no longer exists as a pure form for contemplation; it becomes an image. I take it over with my fantasy, my life force. I put it to the use of my unconscious.”
Bourgeois often carved individual body parts, such as a hand, ear, or leg or, in this case, eyes. Eyes carry all kinds of associations, particularly the connotations of “seeing”: literal eyesight, spiritual vision, windows into the soul, and so on. In Bourgeois’s sculptures, the eyes usually stare out from deep sockets with unnerving directness. She once indicated that she did not distinguish between “eyes that see the reality of things or…eyes that see your fantasy.”
The smoothness of the eyes here contrasts with the deliberately rough stone of the base—a technique often used by Michelangelo and Auguste Rodin in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. The roughly chiselled surfaces tend to reveal the crystalline quality of the stone, at times yielding a sparkly glitter under strong lights. This may explain the artist’s comment that “marble is the sugar of stones.”
A remarkably active woman, Bourgeois carved Eyes at the age of seventy-one, shortly after she began to withdraw from social functions in order to concentrate on her art. Eventually, in her eighties, Bourgeois abandoned carving and began to make fabric sculptures of heads and figures, often with empty eye sockets—possibly a reference to her failing physical faculties.
Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.