It seems to be an established Guggenheim curatorial tactic to place works at the beginning that are meant to serve as a key to the show, conditioning the visitor’s interpretations along the museum’s linear progression. In the Louise Bourgeois Retrospective (now through September 28), these works were Femme Maison, a series of 1946 drawings which repurpose the exquisite corpse practice of the Surrealists to address the multiple societal roles expected of women, a concern of which Breton’s group was either hopelessly ignorant or painfully complicit. It follows that this show, jointly organized with the Tate Modern and Centre Pompidou, attempts to recast Bourgeois’ work as explicitly feminist. With the sheer number of Bourgeois retrospectives in her 97 years, including the first one MoMA put on of a female artist in 1982, it does seem necessary to place her in a new light.
While Bourgeois resisted labels, she couldn’t avoid creating work as a woman in a male-dominated arena. Bourgeois deals with gender by presenting binary constructs to elicit multiple interpretations. This was most evident in the 70s, arguably her most influential period when she embraced various intermedia practices, represented here by her installation Confrontation, with a video representation of an accompanying performance/fashion show in which art world personalities wore latex costumes covered in mammarial protrusions.
Bourgeois makes play of the plurality of interpretations in her Cells series, quasi-architectural installations enclosing arrangements of discreet objects. The walls are often constructed with doors and windows, leading to a phenomenological interpretation dealing with bodies in space and what it means to “view” an artwork. As Bourgeois was caring for her dying mother at the time, the works also refer to disease, with interiors resembling domestic spaces, for example a cot covered in French mail bags embroidered with phrases such as “pain is the ransom of formalism.”
An absence of availability of her most iconic work could explain the show’s lack of coherence, though it does yield a few seldom seen gems, such as He Disappeared into Complete Silence, a collection of 1947 prints displaying a disjunction between text and illustration. For a fresh take one of the few cultural titans who can lay claim to this century and the last, head to the Guggenheim.
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