Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) was a French American artist best known for her large-scale sculptures and installation art. Over the course of her eight-decade long career, Bourgeois’ work openly grappled with her often traumatic, early childhood memories along with greater psychological reckonings surrounding sexuality, abandonment, vulnerability, and domesticity. Although Bourgeois’ art overlaps thematically with Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, and feminist art, her aesthetic output remains distinct from a specific artistic movement.
Bourgeois was born in Paris, France to parents who worked in the antique tapestry business. Later in life, Bourgeois would recall assisting in her family’s tapestry conservation shop in Choisy-le-Roi, mending fragmented textiles through spinning techniques that she referenced in her mature period. In 1932, when Bourgeois was 22, her mother died of influenza. This tragic event paired with her father’s ongoing infidelity– most notably with Bourgeois’ tutor– triggered a deep-seeded fear of abandonment. Shortly after her mother’s passing, Bourgeois switched from studying mathematics to art. She attended a range of prominent art institutions in Paris, including the École des Beaux-Arts, École du Louvre, and a breadth of independent academies. Bourgeois eventually married American art professor Robert Goldwater, and the two moved to New York City in 1938.
In New York, Bourgeois continued her studies at the Art Students League of New York. During this time, she began to rely on her art practice as a therapeutic means of reexamining her difficult past and estranged relationship with her father. Although the artist had previously maintained a printmaking and painting practice, she soon focused entirely on sculpture. Her 1945–1955 totemic, wooden sculptures recalled people in the artist’s past, pointing out gender tensions while interrogating a dynamic between sexuality and fragility.
In the late 1950s, Bourgeois began utilizing new materials including latex, plaster, rubber and– after a trip to Italy– marble and bronze. Through these innovative mediums, she explored her fears of vulnerability and loss of control. In the 1960s, her creative output became increasingly sexual through explicit biomorphic forms, actively challenging patriarchal standards as they related to her own childhood experiences. This transition, paired with the rapid development of the Feminist movement, led to her work being labeled as feminist art. Yet Bourgeois rejected this rigid categorization, claiming that her work was “pre-gender.”
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Bourgeois’ art was exhibited in a handful of exhibitions in several New York galleries, along with the Whitney Museum of American Art’s annual exhibition nearly every year until 1962. Yet it wasn’t until the late 1970s that Bourgeois gained widespread recognition and acclaim; her 1982 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City solidified her position as a leading artist of the period. In 1993, Bourgeois represented the United States in the Venice Biennale, pushing against global stereotypes as a female artist dealing with overtly sexual subject matter.
In the 1990s, Bourgeois developed her iconic spider sculptures. The largest version of these works, Maman, is made of steel and towers over 30 feet high. The title is a French word for mother, similar to “mummy,” which indicates the sculpture’s meaning; the protective spider signifies the artist’s mother who Bourgeois described as “deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.” The spider’s weaving practice further represents her mother’s work repairing tapestries.
Alongside her own creative practice, Bourgeois taught and mentored younger generations of artists. After her husband passed away in 1973, she began a teaching career at the School of Visual Arts, Columbia University, Cooper Union, New York Studio School, and Yale University. During this time, Bourgeois also held Sunday gatherings in her home in Chelsea, filling her apartment with young artists for lively yet merciless critiques. Her dry humor and ruthless attitude earned these legendary salons the name “Sunday, bloody Sundays.”
By the time of Bourgeois’ death in 2010, she had appeared in four Whitney Biennials and been featured in a handful of international retrospectives, including a 2007 show organized by the Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. In the last year of her life, she used her work as a means of activism for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender equality, which built off of her support for AIDS activist organizations in 1993.
Bourgeois prolific oeuvre may have been largely based on deeply personal introspections, yet her work nonetheless resonated with a much larger public. In her own words, “Art is restoration: the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life, to make something that is fragmented– which is what fear and anxiety do to a person– into something whole.” This therapeutic process of physically building wholeness through conceptual art secured Bourgeois as one of the most critical and influential artists of the 20th century.