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Louise Bourgeois Shares Her Deepest Secrets

Louise Bourgeois Shares Her Deepest Secrets

This article is part of our latest special report on Museums, which focuses on reopening, reinvention and resilience.

The sculptor Louise Bourgeois liked to call herself “a woman without secrets,” according to Philip Larratt-Smith, who worked as the literary archivist for the formidable artist from 2002 until her death in 2010 at 98.

Ms. Bourgeois has lived up to that description. She gave permission for a cache of deeply intimate writings — about 1,000 loose sheets made in response to her psychoanalysis from 1952 to 1985 and uncovered in her New York City townhouse in her last years — to someday see the light of day.

Now, a selection of 80 of these vivid, humorous, aggressive, truthful pages form the nucleus of “Louise Bourgeois, Freud’s Daughter,” which opened this month at the Jewish Museum in New York. It presents the writings for the first time in a U.S. exhibition.

They are framed on the wall alongside about 40 sculptures and installations — from her anthropomorphic totems of the late 1940s to her sexually charged organic forms in latex and plastic in the 1960s, to her large-scale tableaux and her fabric sculptures from the last 15 years of her life.

Ms. Bourgeois has been influential to generations of younger artists interested in the body, female sexuality, storytelling, and the combination of abstraction and figuration.

She was also known to have called art “a guarantee of sanity” and “my form of psychoanalysis,” as she struggled for years to overcome a troubled childhood and being sidelined in the art world.

“I think the imprint of analysis on Louise’s art is undeniable,” said Mr. Larratt-Smith, who is guest curator of the exhibition and curator at the Easton Foundation in the artist’s home and an adjacent townhouse on West 20th Street in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.

Ms. Bourgeois wasn’t Jewish but the museum’s director, Claudia Gould, felt the show’s focus on Freudian analysis made it a good fit. “I am always looking for opportunities to broaden the diversity of people we show and how we show them,” she said, adding, “I’m not sure this would have been able to happen in her lifetime.”

In the parlor of Ms. Bourgeois’s townhouse, preserved just as she left it, Mr. Larratt-Smith pointed to the top of a set of high shelves from which the artist’s longtime assistant had pulled down the first batch of psychoanalytic writings in 2004 (a second group was unearthed in 2010 in an upstairs hall closet).

“Louise presumably had forgotten about them and the rediscovery of these writings was a revelation for her as well,” said Mr. Larratt-Smith, who would sometimes read to her from the sheets or ask her questions about them. “Louise lived very much in the present, but the past was always right around the corner. It didn’t take much to trigger it.”

In 1982, at age 70, Ms. Bourgeois received a MoMA retrospective and became lionized in the art world.

But early on, as the exhibition at the Jewish Museum elucidates, Ms. Bourgeois struggled with the conflicting demands of establishing herself as an artist and being a mother to three sons and a good wife to Robert Goldwater, the influential art historian with whom she immigrated to New York from Paris in 1938.

The unexpected death in 1951 of her father, who had carried on a decade-long affair with Ms. Bourgeois’s English tutor, Sadie Gordon Richmond, only six years her senior, plunged the artist into a depression. She began her psychoanalysis the next year with Dr. Henry Lowenfeld.

From 1955 to 1960, Ms. Bourgeois stopped making art altogether. “The analysis almost took the place of art-making for her,” said Mr. Larratt-Smith.

One handwritten sheet from 1958 forms a laundry list of her feelings about the process, calling analysis a trap; a job; a privilege; a luxury; a duty; a duty towards myself, my husband, my children; a love affaire; a cat + mouse game; a joke; my field of study; a pain in the neck.

Other pages reveal her aggression — fantasies of castration or of the attempted murder of her sons. “When I do not ‘attack’ I do not feel myself alive,” she wrote in 1961. She grapples with her anger against her father but also her fixation on him. In 1963, she stated: “At Oedipal time, I never had a chance.”

“She found a way to use psychoanalysis to make herself into a much greater artist and to channel a lot of her unconscious impulses into her art-making,” Mr. Larratt-Smith said.

Ms. Bourgeois came out of hibernation in the mid-1960s with a totally new body of work, including organic cocoon-like forms with openings, very different from the rigid, monolithic  “personages” she showed in New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Her sculptures become more sexually explicit in the late 1960s, building to “The Destruction of the Father,” a pivotal large-scale tableau completed in 1974, a year after her husband’s death, based on a revenge fantasy against an overbearing father on the part of the mother and children who murder and cannibalize him.

Another crescendo of the exhibition is the largest of her architectural “Cells,” titled “Passage Dangereux” (1997), including a primal scene of two figures in bed surrounded by chairs hung high in a mesh cage. “It is about the Oedipal complex and the inability of Louise to go through the rites of passage,” Mr. Larratt-Smith said, referring to the Freudian oscillation between paternal and maternal identification. “She often said that the artist is a figure who never grew up.”

The author Siri Hustvedt, who has written several essays on Ms. Bourgeois, is wary of reading her art too closely through the Freudian prism. “There’s a lot going on in Bourgeois’s work that explodes some of the categorical restrictions of psychoanalysis,” she said, emphasizing the artist’s wit and irony and trickster side.

She pointed to Ms. Bourgeois’s photo essay “Child Abuse,” published in Artforum magazine in 1982 in tandem with her MoMA retrospective, in which she revealed the trauma that played out in her childhood home in the wake of her father’s affair with Sadie Richmond.

Ms. Hustvedt argues that this was both truthful and savvy of Ms. Bourgeois, recognizing how women’s art was invariably viewed by the art world as autobiographical and pre-empting minimizing discussion of husband and children.

“She raised her own existence, her own private story, into the realm of mythology,” Ms. Hustvedt said. Indeed, the story of Sadie Richmond has been retold countless times as part of Ms. Bourgeois’s lore.

“Louise once called herself a long-distance runner,” Mr. Larratt-Smith said. She was present, but always to the side, during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism in New York, where Mr. Goldwater was the star and she was the wife. Sometimes she was completely ignored. She did not forget the slights.

“That’s important to remember when talking about aggression,” Ms. Hustvedt said. “Yes, it’s aggression against the father, but it’s aggression against a whole world absolutely dead set on diminishing women.”


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