Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Louise Bourgeois at Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim Museum has a major retrospective of Louise Bourgeois on through September 28. Bourgeois is the grande dame of contemporary art, at 96 years old still working and holding regular salons at her Chelsea townhouse. She was the first female artist ever to be given a large survey show at the MoMA, in 1982 when she was a sprightly 70. Since then she has continued to produce provocative sculptures and drawings, which employ both abstraction and figuration and which focus on the darker psychological impulses contained within human relationships.

Femme Couteau, 2002 (click for attribution)

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Bourgeois' oeuvre, which spans all the major contemporary art movements of the 20th century, is her outstanding ability as a sculptor in marble, bronze, wood, fabric and assemblage. Bourgeois is a master marble carver, able to evoke subtle variations in the surfaces of her stone works. She is a professionally trained seamstress who began working with fabric as a small child in her family's textile business. Though her forms are often deliberately rough, exposing seams and innards, everything she makes is exquisitely crafted. Her level of technical skill is rare among today's artists. Mand more remarkable still is that she was able to hone it while raising three children from the 1940s through the 1960s, in a time when expectations for women were very different than they are today.

The Blind Leading the Blind, 1947-49 (click for attribution)

Bourgeois' story is an inspiration to artists of both genders, and a reminder that artistic excellence can be achieved regardless of personal challenges. The range of styles and methods she's employed throughout her career is staggering, and its impact is enhanced by its presentation within the Guggenheim's spiraling central gallery. The artwork and the architecture are in constant conversation, and Bourgeois' installation has the effect of rendering Frank Lloyd Wright's dominating architecture gracefully feminine. This coupling is a ballet of space and form, really something to see.

Couple IV, 1997 (click for attribution)

Bourgeois is a living treasure, and I am hopeful that her 100th birthday on Christmas 2011 will be the cause for great celebrations at museums around the world. It's largely because of her that women are making gains within the art market, and whenever we feel frustrated by ongoing iniquities it would be wise to recall her fortitude against challenges this generation could not even imagine.

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