Tuesday, 11 December 2007



Another retrospective of the work of Louise Bourgeois begins a grand tour of international museums from its current address at The Tate Modern. At 95, it will presumably be the last in the artist’s lifetime. Bourgeois is known mainly for her sculpture, their bodily or biomorphic themes, diverse scale and materials that run to installations, even performance. Her patient development is also remarkable, so gradual in fact that for some time it has seemed to defy stylistic analysis or an adequate historical perspective.

But Bourgeois’ path has become clearer with time and her steady progress from biomorphic totems in the late 40s and through the 50s, in families and groupings, to more ambiguous hybrids of human and other animal, vegetable and mineral in uncertain cultivation, trace a shift in sculpture’s priorities for materials, for the range of content and the routes of such reference. The Surrealist roots are clear enough, just where Bourgeois departs from them, less so.

Earlier biomorphic sculpture stresses integration with material and process, a refinement or abstraction through the felicities of carving and modelling. The artist arrives at transcendent forms, yet native to materials. This approach begins with Constantin Brancusi, Hans Arp, Henry Moore and others, although they vary in degree of purity of form. Advocates in New York, such as Alexander Calder and Isamu Noguchi apply the shapes to new, perhaps precarious construction. Noguchi in particular absorbs furniture and functions, promotes personage to pillars or columns, in a way that invites Bourgeois’ totems. Soon the biomorphic element need hardly be present at all to prompt figurative allusion, strictly no longer belongs to Surrealism but a more abstract expression.

However Bourgeois is not inclined to greater abstraction. Instead her attention turns to more puzzling hybrids of animal and vegetable. The biomorphic now is not defined by dedication to carving or modelling, but to fictive realms of mutation and adaptation. The difference is between reference to remote but concrete realms and remote reference to abstract realms. The difference also carries a new flexibility to materials; and this change in emphasis is a large part of Bourgeois’ contribution, although slow to be recognised. For Bourgeois does not abandon marble and casting, even as plaster, rubber and plastics equally serve. She is not after a literal ‘special-effects’ accuracy to her nodules and bulbs, limbs and bulges, but rather their metaphorical potency, their propagation in diverse materials. It is this more complex relation to materials that give the work its richness and resonance of meaning; that ultimately proves influential. Yet, while she departs from biomorphic orthodoxy in this way, it is not territory that attracts immediate interest.

There is great interest in novel materials at that time, in the work of Claes Oldenburg to Duane Hanson, from Eva Hesse to Lynda Benglis, for example, but it is only as Pop and Minimalist styles tire in the 70s, and as Bourgeois’ scale and ambition grow, that her work coincides with wider interests. The Destruction of the Father (1974) with its mixture of plaster, latex, theatrical lighting, its theme of crumpled profusion, family exhaustion, signals this convergence. Sculpture then looks to less formal construction, feminism looks to more equitable sexuality, while Bourgeois looks to shifts in scale, location and material to drive metaphors. Confrontation (1978) expands a similar tableau into an actual arena, where Bourgeois then staged the performance - A Banquet/A fashion show of body parts - in which performers wore gowns fitted with similar rows of protuberances.

The sexual element to many works is often taken as liberation or frankness, but more accurately sexual differences, roles and growth tend to confirm group or family identity, to be a phase or flowering that pairs elements, parses unity, passes reproduction to representation. Later works use more diverse materials; arrive at installation and more readymade components. Body parts now offer metonyms for the person, within architecture that displays and imprisons. Significantly, such works are often titled Cell, preserving biological and collective metaphor. Occasionally the figure appears by proxy or setting, all but renounces her signature, while novel materials now add a surprisingly sentimental note; rely upon setting for the familiar distance. So the variety of materials brings with it more concrete representation, greater disparity with works.

Later Bourgeois can thus accommodate the figure literally, by parts, at an intimate scale, as well as on the grandest or public scale, in metaphor that makes a spider into the structure of grasp or span, frail and absurd, innocent and reassuring. Sculpture triumphs over the tyranny of materials or technology by such displacements, and Bourgeois’ contribution, while slow has been continual and resolute.

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