Intimate Geometries: The Art and Life of Louise Bourgeois
(Monacelli Press, 2016)
In every way, Robert Storr’s biography, critical exegesis, and art historical inquiry/psychological inquest into the art and work of Louse Bourgeois is a magnum opus. More than thirty years in the making, including lengthy pauses while Storr pursued his duties as a curator at MoMA and Dean of the Yale School of the Arts, this 828-page volume with more than 1,000 illustrations is ravishing to look at. The text is as consequential as it is physically challenging to read due to the tome’s physical dimensions, and a supplementary text-centered version online or off (like the old paperback accompaniments) might be helpful for those who would actually like to read it.
From the first page, Storr establishes the intimacy of the title, not only for the reader but also as an emblem of his own close and complex relationship with Bourgeois. For example, both reader and author are in the room in 2007 as the French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni arrive at Bourgeois’s disheveled Chelsea townhouse. The occasion: to bestow France’s highest civilian award, the medal of the Commander of the Legion of Honor, on the French-born artist who at the time had lived the past 70 of her 96 years in New York. (Bourgeois would die in New York City on May 31, 2010 at the age of 98.)
Bourgeois, whom Storr describes with affection and comedic acumen, was in full command of the day. “Sarkozy,” Storr reports, “was unaware that he had stumbled into the redoubt of someone subtler and more slyly assertive than he.” Storr catalogues Bourgeois’s “mesmerizing” traits of “capriciousness” and “malice,” and designates her a “diabolical chess master,” as she sits the “flattered” French President in the seat of honor at her right in her parlor with its scuffed floors and shelves cluttered with videos and papers—souvenirs of her life, and resources for her art. Suddenly, Storr reports, the French President found himself “a head below everyone around him, including the shorter but cleverly enthroned artist.”
Storr himself was often seated in that hot seat of honor, a favored member of Bourgeois’s inner circle, along with her assistant and “éminence grise” Jerry Gorovoy and Deborah Wye, the curator who gave Bourgeois her legendary first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as a revolving cast of other characters, for the most part men. Men, particularly powerful men—from her overbearing father, to the father figure Surrealist transplants from Hitler’s Europe, to New York’s art world establishment—sent Bourgeois into paroxysms of anxiety and rage, with the resultant necessity to tame and seduce them. Women, even Wye, were less threatening and therefore less significant.
During the more than a dozen years during which the late filmmaker Marion Cajori and I met with Bourgeois to film her for our 2008 documentary, Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine, our seats were across from hers. We were at once confidants and outsiders, gamely receptive to her choices of revelation, confrontation, or performance. Storr, in our film, is open and agonized about his bond with Bourgeois. In his book’s first pages, he is the unseen observer of her antics. In the last chapter, written decades later, he is a different kind of observer, intent on unpacking her reasons for their often tortured relationship, as he marks his territory. The book in between is something very different from those first and last pages. In its own way, it is an orthodox art history, which seeks to transcend the form by bringing to bear every possible tool of psychological, biographical, formal, aesthetic, textual, and critical interrogation of Bourgeois’s work and life, interwoven with chronological accounts of the artist’s reception.
With Intimate Geometries, Storr set out to write the definitive text on Bourgeois. When Storr began in 1985, the artist was still relatively unknown to more than a handful of collectors outside museums, and largely invisible to the larger art public. Since then, her reputation has come as close to celebrity as visual artists get, while exhibitions proliferated and the work expanded. In the twenty-five years after her 1982 MoMA retrospective, as Storr writes, she created “well over half the work” in her seven-decade career. He finds it difficult to think of another artist whose late career “lasted longer, was so full of surprises or had greater impact on their contemporaries of every generation than Bourgeois’s.”
As a result, parsing Bourgeois has become something of an industry. I burned out in my attempt to count Louise Bourgeois monographs and catalogues at 60 volumes. Most of these address specific aspects of the artist’s work. Much of the literature, as Storr laments, takes its cue from the story that Bourgeois first enlisted Storr and Laura Tennen to record, and Gerald Saldo to assemble, as a confessional multimedia slide show entitled Partial Recall for the first MoMA retrospective. Partial Recall was followed shortly by a print version of the autobiographical piece, the photo-text published in Artforum as “Child Abuse.” 1 In both, family photographs illuminate Bourgeois’s account of her father’s affair with her tutor, Sadie, and her subsequent sense of a triple betrayal: by father, tutor, and acquiescent mother. When she first exposed the illustrated drama, it may have seemed to Bourgeois that she was taking control of her own story. Almost immediately, though, the tale went viral even in those pre-Internet days in ways that continue to dominate the experience of her art.
Storr’s accomplishment has been to assemble a coherent narrative of Bourgeois’s life, art, and art-making process, encompassing the stories she told, the radical forms she made, and his reading of the psychological impulses at their root, as well as the changing ways in which the world has received her seductive manipulations of traditional and unorthodox materials and morphing forms. It is a compelling narrative, though open to challenge, and with lacunae. Early on Storr announces that “this book partially takes its inspiration” from the philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s concern, not so much with an artist’s intentions as with the poetic resonances of the art. In the first chapters he rehearses her early biography in large part through the lenses of Freud, Lacan, and Klein, as Bourgeois grows up in a prosperous family of tapestry merchants and repairers, in a simmering cauldron of psychological dramas, often Oedipal. However, Storr makes short shrift of the traumas of her pre-Oedipal life, as when she was hardly more than three and her father disappeared to fight in World War I. The following year her mother towed the child on a frantic search for her husband, finding him in Chartres, in a hospital thronged with the often ghastly wounded.
Bourgeois’s “uncontrollable rages and insomnia” are symptoms of “war trauma,” the psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell recently pointed out during a panel held in conjunction with Wye’s latest revelatory MoMA exhibition, Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, which runs through January 28, 2018.2 In our 2008 film, Cajori and I made extensive visual connections between those wounded—not only in hospitals during the war, but on the streets of Paris afterward—and the amputated, grossly stitched bodies and faces of Bourgeois’s late work.3 “Metaphor,” Mitchell noted, “is linked to the body before it is acknowledged in the mind.” It is in this realm of metaphor that both Bourgeois and Storr soar.
After Bourgeois married the art historian Robert Goldwater in 1938 and moved to New York, the couple adopted one son together, and she bore two more. Bourgeois found herself isolated in maternal domesticity. The woman she paints in her 1940s series Femme Maison is part body/part house. “The reality of being locked in behind supposedly protective walls,” Storr explains of these works, “is potentially as terrifying as the experience of being locked out.” Having thus set the emotional stage for these artworks, Storr pivots to their aesthetic innovations in form, specifically Bourgeois’s apposition of the “Cubist space” of the house and the “curvilinear and organic” body. “The poetry of these images, their psychological truth,” he writes, “derives from her recognition of the contradictions inherent in such juxtapositions and her willingness to forswear any obvious stylistic fusion of the two extremes.” Bourgeois’s two-dimensional drawings and paintings soon become three-dimensional totems, carved from found wood, which she described as personnages, stand-ins for the French family she had left behind. She installed these sculptures, in particular The Blind Leading the Blind (1947-49), without pedestals, constructing, Storr writes, “a psychologically charged arena animated by the meandering body of the viewer,” and in the process creating an “extraordinarily prescient antecedent of minimal modular sculpture.”
Bourgeois was touchy on the subject of her influences—not only in connection with artists but with the discourse around the Symbolism and African art in which her husband was steeped as a scholar and the founding director of the Museum of Primitive Art. Storr, who is nearly as grounded as Bourgeois was in ancient, classical, and modernist traditions, undoubtedly had to wait for her death to make the connections he does to the ways in which she bent ideas to her own ends—ideas from the likes of Brancusi, Giacometti, Dubuffet, and Gauguin, together with the “sheer imaginative intensity of outsider art.”
Bourgeois also played a crafty game of giving and withholding with Storr and others—another explanation for the long period of gestation for his project. At moments the artist would grant him tantalizing access to the diaries she kept much of her life, at the next she would turn him away. She lied to all of us by insisting that she had never had anything to do with psychoanalysis, though clearly she had read widely on the subject.
It turns out that Bourgeois’s own psychoanalysis began in 1951, shortly after the death of her father hurtled her into a debilitating depression, and continued until the death of her analyst, Henry Lowenfeld, in 1985. Mitchell has suggested that this was a “training psychoanalysis,” akin to what a psychoanalyst undergoes, its goal not so much to alleviate pain as to access the unconscious as a raw and immediate source—in Bourgeois’s case, for her art. Storr has made only sporadic use of the artist’s psychoanalytic notes (one cache was discovered in 2004, the second after her death in 2010)4, preferring, in effect, to conduct his own psychological analysis on the page. Wye suggests that particularly during the lost decade after Bourgeois’s father died, when she all but stopped making work and ran a hard-to-find bookstore, the analytic notes themselves became her art, a literary art, which scholars are currently studying.5
As an artist himself, Storr is eloquent in his descriptions and contextualization of the art, particularly when Bourgeois re-emerged in the 1960s, with her “modeled, poured, or process-derived biomorphs,” with which she announced her interest in the “action and reaction of materials.” With her plaster and latex “lairs,” she fused “geometric and organic forms.” He writes that “[i]nstead of opposing the rigidity of the house to the pulp and sinew of the body, she presented the body as house and the house as body.” Storr points out that Fillette, (1968) her poignantly hilarious, latex-over-plaster phallus (famously tucked under her arm like a toddler, a trophy, or a gun in the iconic Mapplethorpe portrait of Bourgeois) is “an almost unique entity: a portable site-specific sculpture.”
Storr does not foreground often enough his privileged view from the parlor chair but the book is at its best when he does. He observes that Destruction of the Father, Bourgeois’s ferocious 1974 installation of animal bones, plaster, and latex as a theater of cannibalistic revenge, also manifests the rage of abandonment. On March 26, 1973, Robert Goldwater had died in his sleep while she was downstairs making breakfast. In the following years, Storr writes, Bourgeois became “a blazing late-bloomer in an art world that was being dramatically altered by successive challenges to long-standing aesthetic orthodoxies and to prevailing stereotypes of both traditional modernism and iconoclastic postmodernism,” as she carved marble, made installations of her old clothes, stitched maimed monsters, and cast both delicately wrought odes and her ubiquitous architectural spiders. As emblematic as those spiders may be of conflicted maternity—her mother’s and her own—Storr repeatedly makes the point that in the best of her art the “primary symbolism” lies not in interpretation, but in the viewer’s direct experience of “a phenomenological ambush set by the artist herself.”
- Louise Bourgeois, “Child Abuse,” Artforum, December 1982 (Vol. 20, No. 4).
- “New Perspectives on Louise Bourgeois: A Conversation with Juliet Mitchell and Siri Hustvedt,” Panel Discussion, Museum of Modern Art New York, Nov. 7, 2017.
- Also see my essay on her psychological war wounds in Louise Bourgeois, ed. H. Peter Stern (Storm King Art Center, 2007).
- Philip Larratt-Smith, ed., Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed (London: Violette Editions, 2012).
- Deborah Wye, ed, Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2017), 18. Christopher Turnen also described the notes as “concrete poetry,” in “Analyzing Louise Bourgeois: Art, Therapy and Freud,” The Guardian, April 6, 2012.