Louise Bourgeois

Everybody's favorite nonagenarian spider woman alights at the Guggenheim.

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The Blind Leading the Blind

The Blind Leading the Blind Photograph: ©Louise Bourgeois, Collection Of The Hirshhorn Museum And Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

I’m not a fan of quotas, but you don’t have to be the affirmative-action type to wonder why the Louise Bourgeois retrospective is only the fourth solo show the Guggenheim has given a female artist since 2000. That’s one every other year, which is especially galling when you consider that Bourgeois, 96, is perceived as a pioneering feminist artist. Note, however, that the operative word is perceived. Bourgeois’s work hardly fits the usual stereotypes: It isn’t tendentious or even vaguely interested in consciousness-raising, and while it does make frequent references to the body—especially sexual anatomy—it does so in a way that is highly ambiguous.

Throughout her oeuvre, which includes paintings, drawing, sculptures and installations, Bourgeois makes a concerted effort to break down such binary oppositions as male/female and figurative/abstract. But the most peculiar aspect of her work—one reason it’s achieved global success—is that on a number of levels, it’s reserved and creepy, evincing a dark undercurrent of violence, both mental and physical. For all of her allusions to her life (she had complicated relationships with her mother and her father, who had a ten-year affair with the family governess), one gets the impression of a guarded artist more interested in grandeur than in sharing. She is, in other words, one of the boys, which is why major institutions like the Guggenheim love her.

That said, this exhibition is a triumph, a must-see for anyone who knows Bourgeois only through her giant spiders. It’s certainly a relief after the strum und din of Cai Gou-Qiang’s flying cars: I’d gotten so used to being hit over the head whenever I walked into the Gugg, it took me a moment to adjust to what’s basically a good old-fashioned survey.

Bourgeois is the art world’s coelecanth, a living link to a vanished past populated by art-historical giants. Her objects, stretching across six decades, reverberate with echoes of Brancusi and Giacometti. But she’s always marched to her own drummer. Take her recurring motif of a house sprouting a woman’s arms and legs, which turns up in numerous drawings and paintings titled Femme Maison. At first glance, the image looks like a typical Surrealist exquisite corpse, but it’s not some exercise in chance. Rather, it’s a visual surrogate for Bourgeois herself—who, after moving to New York in 1938, became a wife and mother, dividing her time between raising her children and making sculptures on the roof of her building. She may not have always been happy with her situation (one Femme Maison rendering shows a naked woman, bent over from the burden of carrying a building on her back), but she didn’t find injustice in it either. Eschewing and embracing the social conventions of her time, she chose her life while also accepting that it was chosen for her. And her art suggests the same mix of retrograde and cutting-edge. Though her sensibility was quite different from the younger artists she began associating with in the ’60s and ’70s, she was quick to assimilate their Postminimalist aesthetic—probably because she’d already anticipated it.

In the decade following the Second World War, for instance, she produced her series of “Personages”—serene totemic figures that look like they came straight out of Tanguy. But she also created the remarkable The Blind Leading the Blind (1947–1949). A weirdly reductive wooden construction resembling a gargantuan comb, it looks like it could have been made 20 years later. Bourgeois, then, was neither ahead of her time nor behind it; she was both.

Interestingly, this show doesn’t play up Bourgeois’s signature arachnids (I expected to see one looming over the rotunda, but the example here is child-size). Instead, it focuses on the career that bookends those sculptures, especially her “Cell” installations, produced after 1980, when she moved her studio to more spacious quarters in Brooklyn. Using such detritus as old doors to surround various tableaux, these “Cells” are corrals for the wild horses of psychodrama rampaging through domestic intimacy. If the Femme Maisons represent the exterior of the edifice that is Bourgeois, then the “Cells” hint at what’s happening inside. Either way, as this exhibit indubitably demonstrates, it’s a house built to last.

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