MUSING | The Liberation of Louise Bourgeois

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“I love to remember. I exist if I remember.” —Louise Bourgeois [1]

Louise Bourgeois created work that set up opportunities for recollection, both for herself and for the viewer. She perpetuated her internal “quasi images” about anxiety, alienation, love, sex and death and pushed them out into the physical realm, often through the sieve of memory. She was always reminding – providing external clues and visuals for internal matters; and she was reminiscing [2] taking us out of the introspective act of remembering alone with our own psyche, so that we can now collectively and at times spontaneously begin translating private memories with others. Bourgeois articulated (visually, not through language) past experiences, personal yet collective, so that we can all access it; thus we become her companions in commemoration. We grasp at her reminders for the sheer sake of what they evoke in us, knowing they evoked much more in her, taking us in and out of ourselves.

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When discussing what her work consisted of, Bourgeois repeatedly indicated that it was her memories that provided her substance: “I need my memories. They are my documents. I keep watch over them. They are my privacy and I am intensely jealous of them . . . . To reminisce and woolgather is negative. You have to differentiate between memories. Are you going to them or are they coming to you? If you are going to them, you are wasting time . . . . If they come to you, they are the seeds of sculpture.[3]”

Bourgeois elaborated “Sculpture allows me to re-experience the fear [of my past], to give it a physicality so I am able to hack away at it. . . . Fear becomes a manageable reality. Sculpture allows me to re-experience the past, to see the past in its objective, realistic proportion.”[4] By focusing on specific, significant memories, Bourgeois gave them a demonstrative physical presence (echoing the prominence these items and ideas had in her memories) and was able to

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re-experience them.

In the piece, Le Regard, (above) the object can exist as a mental excavation or an erotic orifice, but it is only an entrance. Here Bourgeois begins to define the element of access, both for her and for us; and does so in an incredibly sensual way with latex and cloth. Fee Couturiere (right) is working in the same concept by becoming both a refuge and a site of seduction.


In Lair, accessibility is widened and we can interpret the opening as the gateway between interior and exterior, between emotion and intellect. Bourgeois described “The lair as a protected place you can enter to take refuge. And it has a back door through which you can escape. Otherwise, it’s not a lair; it is not a trap.” This notion of the lair is seen in Bourgeois’s other early works which began with remembrance of place, homes in particular, and how the first experiences of space can affect us far into adulthood. She created houses and staircases that behaved as major catalysts for memories and later became metaphors for the female figure.

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No Exit, a later work, is virtually an entrance with no means of exit and a further permutation of her beginning definition of house, as alien and as home. Stairs are the central metaphor of place and by situating them in the dead center of the installation; the futile motion required for ascension is centrally focused. Bourgeois said “ When you reach the top of the stairs, there is nothing there, but still to succeed [to exist], you must proceed, even if this means starting completely anew.”

Interestingly, this idea of redefining the climb and fresh start directly correlated to the ever changing and expanding characterizations of the distinctly female touch in contemporary art Bourgeois exposed and exaggerated. At the same time, she was also creating wooden figures juxtaposed together, which quickly escalated to bodies made of bronze, rubber, and marble, making them all the more precious and exorcising the macho connotations from these traditional materials. This use of the figure and fetishizing of memory would become the platform on which all Bourgeois’s fears, issues, and memories would be built.


“Since the fears of the past were connected with the functions of the body, they reappear through the body. For me, sculpture is the body. My body is my sculpture.”[5] Bourgeois “cultivates haptic experience to understand her life and her fears to liberate herself since the original trauma is imprinted on the body it must be released through the body.”[6] “Although her work explores abstraction, allusion to organic form permeates most of her pieces, naturally strengthened by the suggestion of fragments of human anatomy.”[7] Her segmentation of the units of the body as independent parts echoed the segmentation of our lives through our memories and breaks up the hermetic surfaces so that the whole appears injured. Bourgeois now had a vessel for her anxiety using combinations of independent human parts. Charlotte Kotik, The Locus of Memory, expands on this segmentation: “As much as our experiences inform the landscape of our dreams, Bourgeois’s memories provide her with the vocabulary of figures within her sculptural world and as the architect of that environment, she uses locales of her past and present and the cells, organs and tissues of her own making as her building blocks, delving deeper and deeper into her own psyche.[8]”

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Legs illustrates Bourgeois’s use of pliable materials with distortion in scale. Denied of their traditional context by their detachment from the whole, the specimens hang lifelessly and menacingly. Presented as trophies, to be devoured or honored is undetermined, these remnants of the body (remnants that signify motion and mobility) are left uselessly stretched for our consumption. When we have been extended beyond our capacities, how is our body to respond? Can our independent parts recooperate the full figure? The celebratory pink polished marble in Untitled (with foot) is disturbed only by a protruding limb, demonstrating that the mere suggestion of the form can often be more overwhelming than the whole – that fear doesn’t have to engulf us to have an impact.

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In Spiral Woman we see the figure, for the first time, created out of a spiral. Bourgeois indicated that the spiral is what brought order to her chaos; it made her memories make sense, reflecting that they were completely continuous and infinite. She spoke similarly about materials; “I am not interested in materials as such as I’m interested in finding an order out of chaos.”[9] Works such as Lair or Fee Couturiere (pictured above) suggested bodies or parts of bodies to allow a sensual, tactile interpretation for the viewer.

With Ventouse, Bourgeois began to juxtapose items that directly related to her


mother’s illness and death (and Bourgeois’s subsequent feeling of abandonment) with the large scale, monumental blocks of marble. The pairing created an interesting dynamic of the personal and delicate joined with the enormous, impeding black stone. In translation, the title Ventouse means a vacuum extractor for use in assisting childbirth; glass and marble are serve as both beautiful and melancholy stand-ins for this ever important moment and process as well as the glaring comparison of the fragile (life) and the constant (death).

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Le Defi offers Bourgeois unique approach to found objects, not insequential in their meaning, by taking personal tokens and turning them into icons. Both works cleverly illuminate the dichotomy of our memories back to us while presenting “highly personal, poetic, and physical objects.”[10] Her conscious desire to have everything have a place, including her mother, becomes resolved by making sense of the disparate objects of various shapes and sizes. This significant grouping epitomizes our wanting to close the divide and illustrates the fragile and beautiful vulnerability that Bourgeois continually laid out for us, inviting us to do the same.

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In the monumental Cell series, Bourgeois created spaces (where one can view and be viewed), expanding many of the repeated motifs she had begun in works like Le Defi and Ventouse. She continued to use found objects, but again, they are not meant to serve as simulacra in her aesthetic; instead, they served as actual documents from her life. They acted as the intermediary between her private memories and our similar but less distinct experiences[11] and almost always presented or reflected the body.

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At this time, Bourgeois began expounding on the idea of the repeated image, she said: “This is why artists repeat themselves, because they have no access to a cure [for their suffering].” She prefers an acquisition of knowledge organically, through processes of repetition that center around the body. [12] The Cells series represents her obsession with the shifting history of memory,[13] and her objects are unembellished reminiscences —exquisite and erotic and horrific and obsessive. She viewed these works mainly as metaphoric repositories for memory, many relating to her pain and personal fears. She showed hands that embody extreme grief or rage reflective of her mother’s death and/or her father’s duplicities, and a mirror that acts as the metaphor for loss and impending or actual loss. The empty perfume containers represent the sense of smell as depicted in Cell II (detail above right) (which Bourgeois considered the greatest power of evocation), while the guillotine represents the present that cruelly destroys the past. These memories and personal fears are securely grounded in the details of her life, in the foundation of her body.

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Cell (arch of hysteria) (right) expresses emotional and psychological pain, mingled with the release of tension; an orgasm with no access to sex. Accompanied by the very instrument of dismemberment, here we see the band saw in full view and no longer implied. We see the guillotine in Cell (choisy) (above left) which also includes a small replica of her childhood home, echoing her house/body metaphor used in her earlier work.

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Cell (glass spheres and hands) (left) is suggestive of both dining room and classroom, each echoing ideas of disciples around a teacher; proper and isolated, while Cells (eyes and mirrors) magnifies the segmentation of the body, enormous eyes guarding the entrance addressing the objectification of the gaze, in particular of the female form.

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In Cell (you better grow up) (right) a feminized site: Bourgeois enacted the social isolation of the woman’s experience and at the same time exposes her interior life. Visual access here is broadened, in stark compairson to Cell I (below left) which allows entrance only through a narrow doorway to gain actual physical access to the work. This veil of secrecy accurately resonates the volume of her vulnerability. Bourgeois said, “What happened to my body has to be given a formal abstract shape.”

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Cell II (detail noted above right) demonstrates how each cell thus becomes an intimate situation, much like the intimacy of our bodies and their relation of parts. The pained hands surrounded by pleasure, are what Bourgeois called “healing.” Cell III (left) displays the menacing tool that severed the body, the self, again, is now evident within the space. This tension by proximity conveys the extreme emotion present in the work with its dependency on her distortion of the dismembered foot.

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In Cell IV (ight) Bourgeois dissected her own body, insisting that we watch and do the same for ourselves, pushing us to change our own “cells.” In Cell (3 white spheres), Bourgeois fashioned metal and glass cages that restrict physical access but allow for visual penetration, combining the limited entries of the first of the Cell series with that of the Lairs.

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While her work glaringly relays its relatedness to private remembrance, the essential ambiguities in the works allows us to set the context and make it applicable to our experiences and ourselves. Bourgeois’s objects commingle the body and the mind and call up “bizarre uninvited memories” that typically bring on sadness, regret or mourning.[14] In making the work so deeply personal, the artist allowed the work to become acutely universal. As an architect of environment, constructing through experience, Bourgeois’s memories provided her with the vocabulary of figures, or pieces of figures, in her sculptural world. In more recent work, Bourgeois specifically invoked materials and their applications traditionally associatable with women’s work: the use of textiles and sewing commingled with the body and memory. In Three Horizontals (above), we see the use of the figure in whole, slowly deteriorating and being disfigured till it barely resembles that which it first was. The horizontality of the presentation conveying the ideas of release, and giving up.

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In Pierre and Untitled, Bourgeois presented us with a section of the body, sewn by hand; captured in fear and sophistication. The segmentation of the body, still relevant, though her use of textiles and visible hand-manipulation allows for even greater intimacy with her concepts and connection with her material selections. As well, her installation in the vitrine echoes the clean access of the Cell series, but now allows for 360-degree permeations. Masterfully, Bourgeous maintains a discrete separation but does so in regard for her work as objects than as a means of divide.

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Her use of thread on its own is illustrated in works such as Repairs in the Sky, The Trauma Colors, and Untitled, reminisces to her family’s tapestry business when she was a child but starkly explodes the metal surface to create visible and palpable wounds. Ultimately, her merging of the textiles with earlier works, as shown in her hanging works, as well convergence into her Cell Series culimate in an exquisite marriage of material, aesthetics, and conceptual development, as seen in Cell XXVI (top of post) from 2003.

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In her own words “Time is that which finds no place in the present[15]. . . . time lived, time forgotten, time-shared. My reminiscences help me live in the present, and I want them to survive. I am a prisoner of my emotions. You have to tell your story, and you have to forget your story. You forget and forgive. It liberates you.”[16] In embracing the touch of the female hand on traditional materials and subjecting them to her psychological will, Bourgeois created brave inescapable work that is accessible, engaging and beautiful. She liberated herself and us as well.


Images (from top to bottom):Cell XXVI (detail), 2003; Le Regard, 1966, latex and cloth, 5 x 15.5 x 14.5 inches; Fee Couturiere, 1963, painted bronze, 39.5 x 22.5 x 22.5 inches; Lair, 1986, rubber, 43 x 21 x 21 inches; No Exit, 1989, wood, painted metal and rubber, 82.5 x 84 x 96 inches; Legs, 1986, rubber 123 x 2 x 2 inches (each leg); Untitled (with foot), 1989, pink marble, 30 x 26 x 21 inches; Spiral Woman, 1984, bronze and slate disc, bronze: 11.5 x 3.5 x 4.5 inches, disc: 1 x 34.75 inches in diameter; Ventouse, 1990, black marble, glass and electric light, 34 x 78 x 32 inches; Le Defi, 1991, painted wood, glass and electric light, 67.5 x 58 x 26 inches; Cell II (detail), 1991, mixed media, 83 x 60 x 60 inches; Cell (Choisy), 1990-93, marble, metal and glass, 120.5 x 67 x 95 inches; Cell (Arch of Hysteria), 1992-93, plaster, steel, cast iron, and fabric, 119 x 145 x 120 inches; Cell (Glass Spheres and Hands), 1990-93, glass, marble, wood, metal and fabric, 86 x 86 x 83 inches; Cell (you better grow up), 1993, steel, glass, marble, ceramic and wood, 83 x 82 x 83.5 inches; Cell III, 1991, mixed media, 111 x 130.5 x 168 inches; Cell IV, 1991, mixed media, 82 x 84 x 84 inches; Three Horizontals, 1998, fabric and steel, 53 x 72 x 36 inches; Pierre, 1998, fabric in a wood and glass vitrine, object: 8.25 x 5.25 x 5.75 inches, vitrine: 69 x 15 x 15 inches; Untitled, 1998, fabric and steel in a wood and glass vitrine, object: 10 x 25.5 x 18 inches, vitrine: 68.25 x 36 x 24 inches; Repairs in the Sky, 1999, wall relief: steel, lead and fabric, 28.25 x 22.25 x 3 inches; Cell XIV (detail), 2000; Louise Bourgeois behind her studio gates in Brooklyn, New York; Installation image from Cheim Read exhibition titled Suspension; Untitled, 1990, latex sewn on pink paper, 13 x 10 x 1.5 inches


Footnotes: [1] Bourgeois, Louise, Louise Bourgeois (Milan: Fondazione Prada, 1997) 268, citing Fear of the Unknown, in op. cit., 197, note 3 supra (p. 277).; [2] See discussion on reminding and reminiscing as described by Edward S. Casey, Remembering: A Phenomenological Study.; [3] Bourgeois quoted by Kotik, Charlotta, “The Locus of Memory: An Introduction to the Work of Louise Bourgeois.” The Locus of Memory. Works 1982-1993. ed. Elaine Koss (NY: Brooklyn Museum in association with Abrams, 1994) 23. See “Self-Expression is Sacred and Fatal,” 184.; [4] Bourgeois quoted by Charlotta Kotik, 18. See “Self-Expression is Sacred and Fatal,” 179.; [5] Bourgeois, 12.; [6] Lyon-Wall, Scott, quoted in Keller “Unraveling Louise Bourgeois: An Attempt.” Louise Bourgeois Emotions Abstracted Works 1941-2000, 23.; [7] Kotik, 14.; [8] Kotik, 27.; [9] Bourgeois quoted in Terrie Sultan, “ Redefining the Terms of Engagement: The Art of Louise Bourgeois.” The Locus of Memory. Works 1982-1993. ed. Elaine Koss (NY: Brooklyn Museum in association with Abrams, 1994) 24.; [10] Keller, 24.; [11] Sultan, 46.; [12] Sultan, 44-45.; [13] Sultan, 47.; [14] Leigh, Christian, “ The Earrings of Madame B: Louise Bourgeois and the Reciprocal Terrain of the Uncanny,” The Locus of Memory. Works 1982-1993, ed. Elaine Koss (NY: Brooklyn Museum in association with Abrams, 1994) 54.;[15] Bourgeois, 276.; [16] Bourgeois, back cover.

Untitled, 1990, latex sewn on pink paper.jpg

Bibliography: Bernadac, Marie-Laure. Louise Bourgeois. New York: Flammarion, 1996.; Koss, Elaine, ed. Louise Bourgeois, The Locus of Memory. Works 1982-1993. New York: Brooklyn Museum in association with Abrams, 1994.; Bourgeois, Louise. Louise Bourgeois. ed. Jerry Gorovoy and Pandora Tabatabai Asbaghi. Milan: Fondazione Prada, 1997.; Casey, Edward S. Remembering: A Phenomenological Study. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.; Keller, Eva. “Unraveling Louise Bourgeois: An attempt.” Louise Bourgeois Emotions Abstracted Works 1941-2000. ed. Eva Keller and Regula Malin. Zurich: Daros, 2004. 21-28.; Kotik, Charlotta. “The Locus of Memory: An Introduction to the Work of Louise Bourgeois.” The Locus of Memory. Works 1982-1993. ed. Elaine Koss. New York: Brooklyn Museum in association with Abrams, 1994. 13-27.; Leigh , Christian. “The Earrings of Madame B…: Louise Bourgeois and the Reciprocal Terrain of the Uncanny.” The Locus of Memory. Works 1982-1993. ed. Elaine Koss. New York: Brooklyn Museum in association with Abrams, 1994. 51-69.; Sultan, Terrie. “Redefining the Terms of Engagement: The Art of Louise Bourgeois.” The Locus of Memory. Works 1982-1993. ed. Elaine Koss. New York: Brooklyn Museum in association with Abrams, 1994. 28-50.; Zelevansky, Lynn. Sense and Sensibility Women Artists and Minimalism in the Nineties. New York: MOMA, 1994.

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