All art is born of some need to express something, but art of the ilk inhabited by Louise Bourgeois (and some of the great Expressionists and Surrealists with whom she studied and rubbed elbows in her early years) often runs into trouble. With its combination of psyche-sifting introspection and projectile-purging of mind-sludge into the space of others, such work can leave viewers with the sort of “ick” response, which comes from an encounter with high-level narcissism or someone unloading way more than one wanted to know, or the kind of disappointment one realizes after having invested too much time and thought in a memoir that was on the bargain rack, it turns out, for a good reason.
Bourgeois, whose retrospective currently graces the galleries of the Museum of Contemporary Art, has no problem with the last of these possible shortfalls. Everything about her biography is fascinating, from growing up amidst a love triangle; studying philosophy at the Sorbonne and apprenticing with modernist masters; to renting her first apartment in a building that housed a prosthesis maker’s shop, a Surrealist art gallery run by Andre Breton, and Raymond Duncan’s experimental arts academy. After her marriage to art historian Robert Goldwater and subsequent move to New York, Bourgeois raised a family while hanging with a crowd of American avant-gardists, as well as European ex-pats and war escapees. Then she launched a career, now seven decades long and still defined by almost daily work in the studio as she approaches the age of 97. Her birthday is on Christmas Day.
When the retrospective, organized by the Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, made its first American stop at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, it was accompanied by a companion exhibition — culled from Bourgeois’ personal archive and comprising sketches, poems, diaries, ephemera and photos—to flesh out the biography behind the work. Organized by the Guggenheim for the Guggenheim, the companion exhibition is absent from the MOCA presentation, and while this is a loss for Bourgeois fans and anyone interested in compelling biographies — and pulls the crutch out from under those inclined to access and appreciate art based upon a comparison between the art and its maker’s back story — MOCA’s presentation provides another opportunity: to see if Bourgeois’ intensely personal work can get past the pitfalls of narcissism and too much information to offer something more broadly resonant.
Though Bourgeois’ work would have benefited from a little more room here, this exhibition nevertheless makes the case for her hard-won success at a difficult task — producing work that is so deeply personal as to function for the artist as a kind of therapy (often the sure sign of practice going right in the therapy department but wrong in the art department) while delivering compelling, provocative, evocative, generous and even cathartic experiences for viewers. Working through repeated and often conflated themes and motifs—couples; parent(s) and child(ren); the interchangeability and interconnectedness of psychological and physical space; the fragility and failings of the body; the insecurities and conceits we wear in our flesh and our clothes; and our participation in and vulnerability to voyeurism — Bourgeois offers a flood of artworks. These, from abstract and quasibodily works in all manner of material to constructed works in wood, which become more human the more you examine their geometry and contours; to stitched and stuffed dolls, which despite their softness, turn out to be some of the toughest works in the show; to cagelike cells and rooms constructed of nothing but doors and containing the props and mementos of spaces habitable and yet perhaps better walled off. All of these come clearly from a unique voice and personal history, but they speak a language we can begin to decipher and tell of stories we have heard if not known.
There are more than a few cringe-inducing moments in this exhibition — in which the rising static in your brain suddenly drops to your constricting throat, to the pit of your churning stomach, to your involuntarily clenching buttocks, and to the groin you instinctively shelter as your thighs and knees pull closer together — but such moments, while they might fill a need on the part of the artist, are, in the end, for the benefit of the audience. Perhaps this is because no matter how far out she gets, Bourgeois tends to think in imagery that, though often taken to extreme ends, is basic, familiar, essential and even iconic, and because while her work may appear strange, her project is not about the pursuit of the bizarre but the making and finding of sense.
An untitled work from 1996 — a Maypolelike clothing rack from which dangle delicate women’s garments on hangers crafted from knobby bones — is as lovely and harsh a memento mori as was ever made. The 1993 Arch of Hysteria — a streamline bronze figure of a headless, supple young male bent over backward into an almost complete circle — seems an icon of the relation between body and mind for a post-Freud, post-Sartre world. In fact, it seems everywhere you turn here, you encounter a piece that seems somehow iconic for an aspect of being alive in the world. Walking through Bourgeois’ exhibition is the visual equivalent of listening, again and again, to someone else speaking eloquently of things you know, and wishing in each instance that you could have put it so well yourself.
LOUISE BOURGEOIS | MOCA | 250 South Grand Ave., Los Angeles | (213) 626-6222 or www.moca.org. | Mon., 11 a.m.-5.p.m., Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. | Through Jan. 25.