"Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" asked the prominent art historian Linda Nochlin in a provocative 1971 essay. Today her insightful critique serves as a benchmark against which the progress of women artists may be measured. In this book, four prominent critics and curators describe the impact of women artists on contemporary art since the advent of the feminist movement.
Writing in Artforum in March 1975, feminist art and cultural critic Lucy Lippard observed, “It is difficult to find a framework vivid enough to incorporate Louise Bourgeois’s sculpture. Attempts to bring a coolly evolutionary or art-historical order to her work, or to see it in the context of one art group or another, have proved more or less irrelevant. Any approach—non-objective, figurative, sexually explicit, awkward or chaotic; and any material—perishable latex and plaster, traditional marble and bronze, wood, cement, paint, wax, resin—can serve to define her own needs and emotions. Rarely has an abstract art been so directly and honestly informed by its maker’s psyche.”1
In her perceptive appraisal of Bourgeois’s sculpture, Lippard effectively captured the nature of the artist’s uniquely personal and compelling body of work in terms that had only recently been made familiar through the language of feminism. Her pivotal essay described the extraordinarily expansive and inventive psychological approach to art making that Bourgeois had, in fact, been practicing for over thirty years, but for which she was only beginning to receive wide attention. It was a time of major change in the art world. The strict formalism that had dominated art since the advent of modernism was giving way to a more emotionally rich and stylistically varied art ushered in by feminism, postminimalism, and other cultural forces. In 1982 the artist belatedly received her well-deserved recognition when the Museum of Modern Art presented a major and highly successful retrospective exhibition of her work, and she rightly assumed the mantle of “feminist foremother.”2 The past three decades arguably have been her most ambitious, productive, and creative to date. Remarkably, her retrospective exhibition at age seventy-one prompted a new beginning for this senior artist.
Bourgeois’s body of work (including painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, and installation) constitutes a profound, life-long examination of her complex inner workings, often intense and fragile relationships, and personal anxiety.3 She has simply stated, “I identify myself with extreme emotions,” and the sensations her work evokes resonate deeply with the viewer.4 These emotional states and the imagery the artist created from them are based on her difficult experiences growing up in a largely patriarchal society. Fear and pain, anger and aggression, and sexuality and obsession frequently find expression in the artist’s charged representations of the body—or body part—and the home. Eventually, maternal themes also began to emerge. Although she initially practiced modernist abstraction and later anticipated many of the innovations of postmodern art, Bourgeois has never conformed to a single movement or style. She decided to pursue a more eccentric path, choosing instead to give form to the urgings of her psyche. Her means have ranged from the abstract to the figurative; from hard to soft; from single object to architectural environment; and from skillful carving, modeling, and casting, to the precise arrangement of found objects—all in an effort to plumb the depths of human experience, from desire to death.
Bourgeois’s personal history, which she first made public at the time of her 1982 retrospective, has been the source of her work from the start. It is the stuff of legend; though certainly embellished over time, it nonetheless seems to be true. Not surprisingly, it is a psychological narrative, based on unresolved conflicts and tensions arising from her childhood years in France that have continued to affect her emotional life as an adult. Born in Paris in 1911 to an affluent family who were in the business of repairing and selling seventeenth- and eighteenth-century tapestries, she was the middle child of a capable, nurturing mother, who headed the family’s restoration workshop, and a handsome, flirtatious, often volatile father, for whom she was named and whose attentions she courted. She attended the prestigious Lycée Fénelon with her sister and brother and did well, particularly in mathematics. During her formative years, her father invited his English mistress, Sadie Richmond, into the household to be the children’s tutor; while her mother accepted this situation, it was intolerable to the young Louise, who was required to ignore her father’s blatant infidelities, endure his betrayals, and accept Sadie, the hated rival for her father’s love. The anxiety, jealousy, and rage born of this bizarre family drama have fueled aspects of her passionately expressive art throughout her career and, as observed by art historian Robert Storr, are the source of her obsessional return to early trauma.5
As a young woman Bourgeois went on to study mathematics and philosophy at the Sorbonne and art history at the Louvre. Beginning in 1934, she shifted her focus to art and continued her studies at the École des Beaux-Arts, the Académie de la Grande-Chaumière, the Académie Julian, and the Académie Ranson, and with the noted artists Fernand Léger and André Lhote, among others. Bourgeois was invited to exhibit her work at the Salon d’Automne in 1938, the year she met and married the American art historian Robert Goldwater, who published that year the classic text Primitivism in Modern Art. He would become a prominent curator and professor of fine arts at Queens College and later New York University. Until her husband’s death in 1973 he remained one of her most ardent supporters.
Bourgeois and Goldwater settled permanently in New York in 1938, just prior to World War II; there they raised three sons, Michel, Jean-Louis, and Alain. In addition to her traditional European education, Bourgeois participated in the most sophisticated avant-garde artistic and intellectual circles of her time, first in Paris, and later New York, which became the new center of advanced culture after the war. Already as a student she had been acquainted with the Surrealists in Paris, and in New York she knew and socialized with members of the Surrealist community in exile, as well as with the leading writers, scholars, and curators who were her husband’s friends and colleagues. She absorbed, integrated, rejected, and transformed the art of two continents while developing a distinctly independent and idiosyncratic artistic vision. Yet in general, she remained a loner.
During her student years Bourgeois practiced an abstract style of painting and drawing, based on the tenets of Cubism, and also began to explore a more introspective, figurative mode of expression influenced by Surrealism, later blending aspects of each to create her Femme Maison paintings of the late 1940s. The artist had an understandably guarded attitude toward the Surrealists, with whom she was acquainted as a student in Paris and later knew as a professional artist in New York. Although she shared some of their aesthetic concerns—such as the desire to give visual form to subconscious subject matter, its traumatic and erotic compulsions, and strange disjunctions—she rejected the phallocentric, doctrinaire stance of André Breton (1896–1966) and others in his circle who relegated women artists to the role of muse, either femme-enfant or femme fatale, and refused to accept them as artistic peers. Nevertheless, aspects of Surrealism, often subjected to her witty, feminist reinterpretations, infuse Bourgeois’s work. Parallels also exist between Bourgeois’s work and that of such early twentieth-century sculptors as Jean Arp (1886–1966), Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957), and Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966), in the pure, simplified, biomorphic forms of their work and the Surreal or Existentialist aura that surrounds it—qualities that inform Bourgeois’s first major series of sculpture, called the Personages. She has emphasized her stylistic affinity with these artists: “I seek formal perfection, that goes without saying”—a statement that reveals little about her emphatically personal content.6
From 1945 to 1947 Bourgeois created a series of disturbing works, all titled Femme Maison (Woman house), in which a house replaces or engulfs the head of a nude woman, negating her identity and isolating her from the outside world (fig. 14). Here the traditional domain and supposed haven of women is made a suffocating confinement, more a prison than a source of familial contentment. Oddly, while her head is concealed by the house, her nude body remains vulnerably exposed. These flat, schematic paintings and drawings are penetrating icons of private and cultural estrangement and indelible works of feminist commentary. In format, they recall the Surrealist exquisite corpse, a collective game in which players pass on a folded piece of paper on which they have drawn, then concealed for the next participant, a different zone of the body, creating a final image of disjunctive parts. Bourgeois surely knew this technique and reimagined it from the feminist perspective that has informed her entire career.
In the late 1940s Bourgeois decided to abandon painting because she was “not satisfied with its level of reality,” and she took up sculpture as her primary medium in the belief that its tangible, physical presence would better convey her experiences and intense emotions.7 As she explained, “I could express much deeper things in three...