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Despite the fact that Louise Bourgeois has been making art for more than seven decades, her drawings, sculptures, and installations are completely contemporary. At the age of ninety-four, she is, according to the exhibition curator Frances Morris, “the oldest of young artists” (10). Organized by Morris, senior curator at the Tate Modern in London, with Brenda McParland, head of exhibitions at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Louise Bourgeois: Stitches in Time is an intimate and engaging exhibition of her recent fabric sculptures, drawings, and a handful of older engravings. After a European tour, the exhibition closes at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, its only U.S. venue.
Morris, who wrote the essay for the show’s catalogue, is one of the foremost authorities on Bourgeois’s work and is currently organizing a major retrospective on the artist at the Tate Modern. One may recall that museum’s opening in 2000, which featured an extraordinary commission from the artist: three large black towers, ambiguously entitled I Do, I Undo, and I Redo. These architectural structures exemplify themes that resonate throughout her oeuvre—mainly the cyclic narrative of creation, destruction, and re-creation, and the corresponding emotional states that such a fluctuation inspires. These qualities, and the artist’s preference for triadic groupings, are manifest in her exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami.
The show features twenty-five works, spanning 1996 to 2002, except for one set of engravings dated 1947. Over the years, Bourgeois has reinvented her practice in a variety of materials, ranging from latex, plaster, ceramic, and steel to traditional materials such as marble and bronze. For this exhibition, Morris selected examples of the artist’s fabric sculptures. More than twenty of the works displayed were created with wool and cotton—unusual matter for work in sculpture—but Bourgeois manages to make fabric look remarkably appropriate.
The exhibition is arranged formally, with bodies of work that correspond visually placed together. The curator arranged the large works spaciously throughout the museum’s three galleries, paying careful attention to lighting. Given the theatrical nature of the Bourgeois’s work, more than a few curators have used dramatic lighting to call attention to this aspect. Morris thankfully kept theatricality to a minimum.
Upon entering the exhibition, the viewer is confronted at eye-level with a horizontally suspended female figure, no bigger than a foot in length, composed of pieces of pink fabric. Entitled Arch of Hysteria (2000), the work hangs rigidly by the navel. Although the figure lacks distinguishing anatomical features, two full breasts indicate that it is a representation of a woman. Subtle indications of a face are made with tiny overlapping layers of fabric: a trapezoidal protrusion for a nose, two small indentions for eyes, and an oval recession for her mouth. She appears to be screaming, yet also appears stuck in a self-defeated state of muteness. Bourgeois’s talent for conveying such an intense state of human emotion in such a subtle rendering is undoubtedly marvelous. The extraordinary expression in the figure’s mouth recalls a series of paintings by Francis Bacon, an artist whom Bourgeois has acknowledged that she admires greatly.
In the museum’s first gallery, the life-size Arched Figure (1999) visually echoes Arch of Hysteria. This earlier work also hangs by the naval but is placed inside a rectangular steel-mesh case. Her body forms an arch over a wooden floor, with her legs drooping and her head falling back to reveal a distressed expression on her face. A mirror situated behind her head reflects different parts of her face, depending on the viewer’s vantage point. The formal language of the harsh steel structure is minimal, and the austerity of the environment exacerbates the unnerving portrait it frames—a floating figure suffering inconsolably as the viewer voyeuristically walks around her, observing her and admiring her surreal beauty.
The second gallery holds four of Bourgeois’s “cells,” recent work from a series begun in the 1980s. Each of these enclosures houses a sculpture of a single head, created entirely in fabric. The cells are placed on steel tables, allowing the viewer to look at the caged head from all sides. The heads rest inside either a glass encasement or a steel-mesh cube, staring hauntingly like mummies in an ethnographic display. In another part of the gallery stand three tall pyramidal towers of hand-sewn fabric cushions, which interlock vertically like pieces in an architectural puzzle. One of these towers resembles a V-shaped spinal cord.
An ongoing theme in Bourgeois’s work is an investigation of the body, especially references to limbs and bones. One work in the first gallery, Untitled (1996), uses large animal bones as hangers that suspend an evening dress and various feminine undergarments. The references surface yet again in a series of drawings of an amputated soldier in the museum’s corridor. In a lecture given at the exhibition’s opening, Morris explained that Bourgeois’s preoccupation with limbs and bones can be traced to a childhood memory in which her sister’s leg was so badly infected that it swelled to a grotesque proportion. The memory, according to Morris, has remained with the artist since.
The museum’s last and largest gallery contains five unique works. In one corner, a part-human, part-cocoon form hangs weightily from the ceiling by a wire cable. This sculpture, entitled Spiral Woman (2003) and made from small bits of blue fabric, has the surreal appearance of an embryonic human. Dangling legs morph upward into a spiral mass that tapers at the top. Because the fabric’s texture suggests human flesh, the life-size sculpture creates a forceful presence in the room. The sculpture’s malleable material makes it easy for one to imagine a live human sheathed inside its blue spiraling pupae.
Four additional cells, all made of glass, occupy the rest of this gallery. Close to Spiral Woman is a glass cell housing a female torso, with a small full-bodied figure resting snugly between its breasts. Entitled The Found Child (2001), this work is made entirely of black fabric, which creates a unity between the two figures that accentuates the intimacy depicted in their embrace. The theme of maternal love is repeated in another cell, entitled Oedipus (2003). This work stages several situations or relationships among the enclosed figures: a young child, two copulating adults, an elderly couple holding hands, and a mother nursing her child. In the center of the glass case is a head (presumably that of Oedipus) whose closed eyes are pierced by needles.
Sexuality and mutual comfort are themes that surface again and again in Bourgeois’s work, sometimes in deranged and perverted ways. Seven in Bed (2001) is a group of seven tiny figures, all made of pink fabric, which lie horizontally across a miniature bed inside the glass cell. The orgiastic affair is a net of limbs and heads; the figures have elongated arms that interlock, while some of the figure’s heads (a few with two heads) are snuggled in each other’s necks.
The last cell in the room, Couple (2001), is an allegory of mutual love and sexual desire between lovers. Two figures, again constructed in pink fabric, hang vertically by a single string. The male kisses the female on her forehead, and her face turns slightly to one side; his penis is fitted between her thighs. Their taut embrace and their feet, which have been carefully stitched together, join the man and woman to each other. In contrast to the solitary figures in agonistic turmoil from the two previous galleries, Couple appears strangely out of place. As infatuated as Bourgeois is with reliving her childhood traumas (one may recall her 1982 insert in Artforum, which recounted in photographs her father’s long-term affair with her childhood nanny), she tempers her portraits of psychological destruction with scenarios of love’s reaffirmation; The Found Child and Couple are examples of allegories of emotional comfort in Bourgeois’s work.
Although it is tempting to write about the work in this exhibition in relation to the artist’s life, it is best not to get caught up in the turmoils of Bourgeois’s biography. The works are reflective of universal states of mind and are best appreciated as such. Bourgeois herself warns against allowing her interpretations to cloud the viewer’s perception. She affirms that “an artist’s words are always to be taken cautiously.… [T]he artist who discusses the so-called meaning of his work is usually describing a literary side-issue. The core of his original impulse is to be found, if at all, in the work itself” (32). Although biographical anecdotes may enhance our understanding of Bourgeois’s works, the connection one feels to the works themselves is what gives them their timeless and forever novel effect.
The cyclic pattern of creating, destroying, and recreating is the thread that permeates her entire body of work, and this exhibition subtly illustrates this idea in its placement of sculptures. Stitches in Time is wonderfully cohesive in its formal and thematic arrangement. Morris considers that “what unites her work in each of its guises is the way in which her private history and personal mythology still afford the viewer a uniquely individual response to the work” (31). Perhaps this explains why Bourgeois’s powerful work, new or old, never appears dated.
University of Miami