Friday, January 13, 2012

Designer of the Month: Louise Bourgeois

Week 2: Painting and prints

Rather than going through a straight biographical history, I decided to focus on three specific aspects of Louise Bourgeois' work this month not out of any specific desire to categorize a lifetime of artistic expression, but more simply because when looking at such an incredible range of artistry as Bourgeois displays, it can be both helpful and fascinating to look at like objects. So, while Bourgeois is best known for her sculptures and installation work, we're going to stay away from those for now, focusing entirely on her works on paper this week.

Louise Bourgeois, Femme-maison, 1946-1947. Oil and ink on linen, 91.50 x 35.50 cm. Private collection. Photograph by Rafael Lobato, © Adagp, Paris 2008. Courtesy of the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

In 1938, Louise Bourgeois and Robert Goldwater moved from Paris to New York City. During her early years in New York, Bourgeois studied at the Art Students League, and soon began to display her paintings, with her work shown in the Brooklyn Museum Print Exhibition in 1939.[1] Bourgeois' early work, such as the femme-maison (house-woman), above, takes much of its inspiration from the Surrealist art movement, but this was just one of the many artistic styles that would attempt to claim Bourgeois throughout her life. As Charlotta Kotik explains:
Befriending a number of expatriate realist artists during the Second World War, she participated in the rise of Abstract Expressionism, shared the legacy of the New York School, and through her early working methods anticipated the practices of Process Art and the discipline of Minimalism. She readily comprehended all, but accepted none. Fiercely independent, she charted her own territory instead, traveling a solitary path and sustaining the isolation that so frequently attends such a road. Motivated to express deeply autobiographical content, Bourgeois followed her own rhythm. Although her work explores abstraction, allusion to organic form permeates most of her pieces, naturally strengthened by the suggestion of fragments of human anatomy.[2]
Bourgeois was given her first solo show in 1945, during which she exhibited 12 paintings at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York.[3] It was also during this time that Bourgeois became involved in printmaking, working at Stanley William Hayter's printshop, Atelier 17, in the mid-to late 1940, where she met WWII European exiles such as Le Corbusier and Joan MirĂ³.[4]

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, plate 9, third version, state II, from He Disappeared into Complete Silence. Engraving and drypoint over photogravure with watercolor additions from an illustrated book with eleven engravings, ten over photogravure, six with drypoint, five with aquatint, and five with watercolor additions, plate: 9 1/8 x 4 1/8" (23.2 x 10.5 cm); sheet: 10 1/16 x 6 3/4" (25.5 x 17.2 cm). Gift of the artist. © 2011 Louise Bourgeois Trust. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1277.2008.9).

And although Bourgeois both exhibited with a wide range of artists during this time, including, most notably, the Abstract Expressionists, drawing on the unconscious as subject matter, she refused to be labeled under any one category. Instead, according to Rina Youngner, "she created symbolic objects and drawings expressing themes of loneliness and conflict, frustration and vulnerability," such as in the above image, from He Disappeared into Complete Silence (1947), her best-known printed work.[5]

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, plate 2 (facing page 4), only state, from Homely Girl, a Life, Volume I, 1992. One drypoint from an illustrated book with ten drypoints, one with roulette and one with punching, plate: 7 3/8 x 5 3/8" (18.7 x 13.6 cm); page: 11 1/2 x 8 3/4" (29.2 x 22.2 cm). Gift of the artist. © 2011 Louise Bourgeois Trust. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (29.1993.A02).

So it's incredible to consider that all of Bourgeois' prints were created during two periods: 1938-1949, and again from 1973-1993, with none made at all during the time in between, when she focused entirely on three-dimensional works.[6] As for her painting, which so defined her early life both in Paris and New York, this was abandoned entirely in 1949 in favor of installation and sculpture.[7]

[1] MoMA online, "The Collection: Louise Bourgeois," from Grove Art Online by Rina Youngner, © 2009 Oxford University Press, (accessed January 12, 2012).

[2] Charlotta Kotik, "The Locus of Memory: An Introduction to the Work of Louise Bourgeois," from Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory, Works 1982-1993, ed. Charlotta Kotik, Terrie Sultan and Christian Leigh, (New York: The Brooklyn Museum in Association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1994), 13-16.

[3] Guggenheim Museum online, "Biography," from the exhibition Louise Bourgeois (June 27 - September 28, 2008),, (accessed January 12, 2012).

[4] Ibid.

[5]  MoMA online, "The Collection: Louise Bourgeois," from Grove Art Online by Rina Youngner, © 2009 Oxford University Press, (accessed January 12, 2012).

[6] Deborah Wye, "A Drama of the Self; Louise Bourgeois as Printmaker," from The Prints of Louis Bourgeois, ed. Deborah Wye and Carol Smith, (New York: The Museum of Modern Art in Association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994.), 11.

[7] Holland Cotter, "Louise Bourgeois, Influential Sculptor, Dies at 98," The New York Times online, (accessed January 12, 2012).

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