Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait

MOMA Exhibition Review by Ronni Knepp

Infinity,  by Louise Bourgeois

Infinity, by Louise Bourgeois

Last weekend I had the opportunity to travel to New York City. Due to the very short nature of our visit, I was only able to go by the Museum of Modern Art to view the works they were showing in their exhibition and collections gallery. I had never been to NYC and it was a real pleasure to go to MOMA finally, given its prestige in the art world. My husband begrudgingly agreed to the trip to the museum, but his spirits were lifted that this could end up being a great experience when we were told we could get into the museum for free because he was active duty military. I quickly checked my backpack and we skirted through the line with relative ease. The first stop, of course, was the second floor, which showcased the Louise Bourgeois exhibition… and this is where our building excitement hit the floor.

Walking up to the doors of the exhibition is a large plaque next to a photo of the female artist. The plaque reads more as a bio then an artist statement, but to paraphrase it explains she was a printmaker and sculptor back in the 1940’s. Being a female artist is difficult right now and was near impossible back then, so I respect the woman for her fearless pursuance of her art. However, through the large glass doors you could see a wall with sketches of large breasted women. The drawings appear to have been done in crayon, or maybe paint, on plain white paper and, as my husband stated, “looked like a 4 year old drew them.” They tiled the wall, all looking nearly identical to the next.

Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois

As we moved throughout the exhibition, our pace honestly got quicker and slightly more awkward. I am usually not one to try to apply the Freudian theory to artists, especially female artists, but to be absolutely frank, it seemed to us that Louise Bourgeois might have had some strong feelings about women, or being a woman herself even. Most of the works exhibited showed something about the female reproductive system (there were very large prints of “abstract” ovaries and fallopian tubes), a sculpture and preliminary sketches of a newborn baby dangling over the naked mother by it’s umbilical cord, and prints with shapes that either depicted the male genitalia, female body parts, or what we even interpreted of pools of menstruation blood. In the YouTube video on MOMA’s website, they talk about her sculptures and how she was impressed by the tall skyscrapers of New York when she moved there, but even they could have been interpreted as something phallic (especially when viewed with the rest of her work). As we made our way through the rest of the exhibit, there were group activities to try to redraw the paintings of the ovaries and one group was sitting around one of her prints talking about what they felt about the print. I was astonished when someone asked, “well what did she think of the work?” and the reply that came was “it doesn’t matter what the artist thinks, what do you think?” My jaw dropped and my husband quickly pulled me off to the side to keep moving. Although my husband is not an artist, he was absolutely offended for the artist (and me) by the response.

Lullaby,  2006 by Louise Bourgeois

Lullaby, 2006 by Louise Bourgeois

I looked through some of her work online and aside from the giant spiders (which we tried to avoid because they were also on display at MOMA), it seems the majority of her work is centered on the woman. Based on the YouTube video and outside research, it’s a fair assumption that she had some serious issues with her father and perhaps this is what caused the exuberant amount of artwork that appears to be about gender and especially the woman’s role. According to an article on Wikipedia:

Sexuality is undoubtedly one of the most important themes in the work of Louise Bourgeois. The link between sexuality and fragility or insecurity is also powerful. It has been argued that this stems from her childhood memories and her father's affairs. 1952's "Spiral Woman" combines Louise's focus on female sexuality and torture. The flexing leg and arm muscles indicate that the Spiral Woman is still above though she is being suffocated and hung. 1995's "In and Out" uses cold metal materials to link sexuality with anger and perhaps even captivity.

The spiral in her work demonstrates the dangerous search for precarious equilibrium, accident-free permanent change, disarray, vertigo, whirlwind. There lies the simultaneously positive and negative, both future and past, breakup and return, hope and vanity, plan and memory.

Louise Bourgeois’ work is powered by confessions, self-portraits, memories, fantasies of a restless being who is seeking through her sculpture a peace and an order which were missing throughout her childhood.

The Family I,  2007 by Louise Bourgeois

The Family I, 2007 by Louise Bourgeois

While her work and her statement absolutely has merit, even in today’s day and age, my husband and I found that the large amount of it in the exhibition at MOMA was overwhelmingly awkward and, honestly, made us question going further up to see the rest of their galleries. Bourgeois had become a part of the feminist movement, even though it was not her intentions, and she undoubtedly helped women become more accepted in the art world. That being said, however, I don’t think I would recommend taking kids to MOMA while this exhibition is going. I definitely would not bring my own kids. There is something to be said for a bit of variety in your work, and seeing the repeated concepts in hers revitalized that need in my own work to make sure I do not constantly repeat the same themes or even aesthetic choices. It became redundant and boring to us by the end of the exhibition. All this being said, I’m glad we did end up going to the collections galleries on the upper levels! So although level 2 left a bad taste in our mouth, and the unprofessional reply of the lady leading one of the groups especially did not help, we were still able to enjoy the rest of our visit at the museum… minus the very large spiders of course.