Louise Bourgeois: To Unravel a Torment” at Maryland’s Glenstone Museum

Elaine A. King
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Mitchell Rales, the science and technology billionaire, and his art historian-wife, Emily Wei Rales, are co-founders and directors of Glenstone Museum (left). The Rales foresee Glenstone Museum as being the “21st century version of New York’s Frick Collection.” The founders aim “to create a seamless integration of art, architecture, and landscape and make it available free of charge to all who wish to visit.” It initially opened in 2006 with a 30,000-square-foot pavilion designed by the late New York architect Charles Gwathmey. The newest pavilion by Thomas Phifer and Partners will open in October 2018, adding 50,000 square feet of new indoor display space to the 9,000 square feet of existing exhibit space, known as the Gallery. Glenstone will become one of the largest private museums in the world, comprised of an arrival hall, entry pavilion, bookstore and two cafés along with 130 acres of designed landscape with newly installed outdoor sculptures.
Unlike many collector-founded institutions that lack long-term economic plans or sufficient endowments, Glenstone is perhaps one of the exceptionally endowed private museums of modern and contemporary art in the world, with assets estimated at $1.25 billion, as indicated in recent tax filings of the Glenstone Foundation. The acute attention given to this cultural institute is evident throughout–on the grounds, the elegant pavilions and the well-chosen art.

“Louise Bourgeois: To Unravel a Torment”, is the current exhibition curated by Emily Rales, aided by Jerry Gorovoy the artist’s long-time assistant. Gorovoy is president of The Easton Foundation, the non-profit organization that Bourgeois founded to conserve her artistic legacy.

Right: Louise Bourgeois, To Unravel a Torment (1999).

Bourgeois’s eccentric approach to making art was an ongoing evolution yet she wasn’t acknowledged until the 1980s, since formalism and minimalism had dominated the art world with few women artists accepted by the art world. It was only in 1982, following her successful retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, when Bourgeois was by now 71, that her importance rose. Her reputation increased even more after she represented the United States at the 1993 Venice Biennale. Furthermore the rise of content and artists interests in ”emotional” issues along with the upsurge of Feminism advanced her respect among curators, critics and audiences.

This methodical oeuvre of Bourgeois spans most of the 20th century, evincing the disturbing psychological occurrences of the French-American artist begun in her youth, principally by her father’s blatant infidelity. Fundamental to her work is a haunting sense of angst, anger and pain that incessantly pervades her overt sensual subject matter. The underlying themes of pain and identity informing her art connect to events from her childhood. Bourgeois said, “My childhood has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama.”—All my work of the last fifty years, all my subjects, has found their inspiration in my childhood.”

Despite the preeminent brooding quality and the erotic subjects across this work, Bourgeois’s art is unclassifiable in terms of belonging to any particular style or movement. This imaginative production of nearly eight decades cuts through Surrealism, Body Art, Identity, Installation Art, and Proto-Feminist Art. This is clearly apparent in this jewel of a show. Yet it is not a display that is easy to digest.

Organized chronologically the exhibition ensues in a wide range of modes and materials. It offers viewers a walk through time, presenting an assortment of work including the elongated “Personage” series, early wooden linear sculptures; bronze, marble, plaster, and rubber pieces, in addition to suites of drawings and prints; textile-based works; and several of her noted room-like installations known as the “Cells.”

Louise Bourgeois, The Destruction of the Father (1974).

Shown in spacious, minimal gray galleries, each work is afforded ample space for viewers to quietly observe and feel the artwork’s vital presence without interference from the other objects. Nearly 30 pieces from the museum’s collection are displayed including a recently acquired diorama installation, “The Destruction of the Father,” 1974 an enigmatic and macabre sculpture actualized at a pivotal moment in her career. This is an exceptionally arresting piece that reconciled Bourgeois’s interest in form with psychological theatrical experimentation. Also it was her first installation produced when installation art was in its initial stages. This intimate size installation precedes feminist artist Judy Chicago’s epic installation “The Dinner Party” begun in 1974.

Bourgeois’s dimly lit nightmare tableau glowing in red tones resembles a theater’s proscenium that invites pause and careful scrutiny. In its cave-like recess a table is covered with parts resembling butchered animal quarters; it is the central focus of the construction filled with arrangements of breast-like bumps, phallic protuberances and other organic shapes in soft-looking latex that evoked a scene from a sacrificial evisceration of a body. Clearly this is a ghastly fantasy inspired from childhood, having to listen to her autocratic father pontificate nightly at the dinner table.

Louise Bourgeois with Noir Veine (1968).

Her adeptness with materials and technical craftsmanship is apparent throughout the show. “Noir Veine,” 1968, is a marble sculpture in tight configuration depicting a bouquet of nascent polyps, containing bulbous swellings.

For Bourgeois a sculptures’ suspension is an expression of the psyche; “Horizontality is a desire to give up, to sleep. Verticality is an attempt to escape. Hanging and floating are states of ambivalence.” The bulbous forms of the bronze, plaster and latex in pieces that she often referred to as the Avenza were used as a basis for later, the ambitious work, “The Destruction of the Father,” 1974.

In “Fillette (Sweeter Version)” 1968–99 (right), the artist plays with the ironic contrast between the title and the work—Fillette [little girl] represents a penis. It is a suspended rubber sculpture depicting of a pair of testicles with a shaft that ends in a clitoral cover. The distortions of both male and female anatomy meld oft becoming indistinguishable. The testicles can be seen as breasts and one can interpret the erect penis as a neck. The feminine-masculine incongruity is additionally accentuated by her choice of materials—the hard plaster and the lithe latex covering it. The work displays her use of biomorphic imagery as well as her experiments with androgyny.

“Hanging Janus with Jacket,” 1968, is another sexual form made from bronze, and polished patina. Janus was the god with two faces—one gazing towards the past and the other looking to the future. Bourgeois combines both masculine and feminine elements. The dual penis heads appear exposed and defenseless, seeking protection under a hard outer shell.

Left: Louise Bourgeois, Hanging Janus with Jacket (1968).

Along with the infamous spiders, the Cell series comprised of 60 is another of her most celebrated series. In the 1990s, already in her eighties, Louise Bourgeois devoted herself to the creation of these magical chambers, in which she grouped objects that were special to her and could spark a strong emotive charge. In 1991 Bourgeois coined the word Cell when was preparing work for the Carnegie International exhibition in Pittsburgh, where she presented the first six of these new sculptures. For Louise Bourgeois, the cell encapsulates much of what is at the core of life and of art making and has numerous denotations from biology, to prison and monastic space. For her The Cells encapsulate diverse kinds of pain including emotional, mental, physical and psychological; they are unique spaces where she could untangle the ethereal framework of her memories and emotions. Continuously she has used her private family history as a source of material for her works.

“Untitled,” 1996 (right), was made near the time she was producing the Cell installations. This open- air sculpture contains a black dress with beads and intimate clothing floating that punctuates the space at different heights. The selection of garments, belonging to the artist, hangs on a vertical steel structure resembling the spool-holders for threads used in her parents’ workshop in Choisy-le-Roi for tapestry restoration. Instead of hangers, Bourgeois uses bones to suspend the delicate silk and satin subtle colored articles of personal clothing. The delicateness of the satin under garments contrasts with the heaviness of bones that evoke a nuance of memory, time’s passage and death.

Each Cell is a unique, distinct microcosm encompassing a range of emotions and associations that offer the viewer an opportunity to be a voyeur and to partake in a clandestine, uncanny experience. Jointly in the fabrication she used the language of dissimilar artistic currents of the 20th century—Surrealism, Minimalism, Informal Art, Feminism and even Arte Provera. Each interior compartment embodying a cacophony of materials, ideas and memories is a uniquely psychological space, and, each sculptural environment needs to be read as both an open and closed narrative that affords viewers a peak into the artist’s private inner space.

Louise Bourgeois, Cell (Choisy), 1990-93, features a model of the artist’s childhood home.

Of the three “Cells,” on display the most unsettling and perhaps most autobiographical is “Cell (Choisy), 1990-1993, made from pink marble, steel and mirrors. It was the first of the series of large cages. The lattice metal fence like structure is a significant component allowing one to see into the installation yet simultaneously arouses a sense of captivity. A miniature model of Bourgeois’s childhood home Choisy-le-Roi is the central focus of this piece, the place of all her melancholic memories that permeate her work. The confined, stately marble house appears tranquil however looming above it is a threatening guillotine blade. This of course alludes to France’s history and evokes psychological connotations of imminent severing and ending. Bourgeois feels “The past is guillotined by the present.” The motivation for the entire Cell series’ is about the act of simultaneously remembering and forgetting. Bourgeois describes this, “You have to tell your story and you have to forget your story. You forget and forgive. It liberates you.” Despite this philosophical view, it is doubtful this artist lived by her personal theory!

Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), NYC, 1999. Photo: Mathias Johansson.

Although it took decades for Bourgeois to surface as a tour-de-force in the art world, her inspiration on other artists looms large especially in feminist-inspired art and the expansion of installation art. She revealed how to condense feelings and a conceptual allusion into carefully crafted forms and constructions. Glenstone’s serene galleries do provide a place for the visitor to delve deeper into the contradictory art of Louise Bourgeois, affording them an opportunity to gain an enhanced understanding of this multifaceted, though anguish-ridden, artist.

Elaine A. King, Contributing Art Critic

“Louise Bourgeois: To Unravel a Torment”
At Potomac, MD’s, Glenstone Museum, through late fall 2018

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