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MoMA explores Louise Bourgeois's prints and books
Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). No. 4 of 34 from the fabric illustrated book Ode à l’Oubli. 2002. Page (approx.): 10 3/4 × 12 1/16″ (27.3 × 30.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

NEW YORK, NY.- The Museum of Modern Art’s Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, on view September 24, 2017, through January 28, 2018, is the first comprehensive survey of Bourgeois’s prints and illustrated books. It places these mediums within the context of the artist’s overall practice and sheds new light on her creative process. The exhibition includes 265 prints (including those in books and series), 23 sculptures, nine drawings, and two early paintings. Louise Bourgeois is organized by Deborah Wye, Chief Curator Emerita of the former Department of Prints and Illustrated Books—a longtime friend of the artist and a leading scholar of her work—with Sewon Kang, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints.

Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), a celebrated sculptor who worked in multiple mediums, was motivated by emotional struggle. Through art, she made her emotions tangible and sought to understand and cope with painful memories, jealousy, anger, anxiety, loneliness, and despair. Art was her tool of “survival,” she said, and her “guarantee of sanity.” This exhibition highlights the themes and motifs that served as visual metaphors for Bourgeois and recur in her artistic practice across seven decades. They vary from architectural forms to growth and germination in nature, from the human body and sexuality to motherhood, and even include symbolic abstraction. Her illustrated books bring attention to another of Bourgeois’s little-known creative outlets: her highly evocative writings, which form the texts for these volumes.

“Her prints and their evolving states of development are especially revealing as they provide the opportunity to see Bourgeois’s imagination unfold,” says exhibition curator Deborah Wye. “To view such sequences is akin to looking over the artist’s shoulder as she worked.”

The creation of multiple examples of the same composition is fundamental to printmaking, and this encouraged Bourgeois to re-envision her imagery in myriad ways by embellishing her prints with gouache, watercolor, pencil, and ink to reflect her changing moods. She also benefited from printmaking’s collaborative nature, which often entails the encouragement of publishers and the assistance of expert technicians. Bourgeois’s printmaking relationships could lift her spirits, and the work she accomplished with her collaborators in her home/studio on 20th Street in Manhattan was creatively energizing.

The entire body of Bourgeois’s printmaking comprises some 1,200 individual compositions, and constitutes a major component of her work overall. She created prints in two periods of her career. In the 1940s, she was an active printmaker and painter; she transitioned to sculpture only late in the decade. At that time, while raising three small children, she often made prints at home on a small press. She also frequented Atelier 17, a renowned print workshop that had relocated from Paris to New York in the war years. When Bourgeois turned definitively to sculpture, she left painting behind, but returned to printmaking many decades later, in the late 1980s. During the 1990s and 2000s—when Bourgeois was in her eighties and nineties—she made prints a part of her daily practice. She resurrected her old printing press from the 1940s, and eventually added a second, both located on the lower level of her home/studio.

The thematic sections of this exhibition bring together prints from both periods of Bourgeois’s engagement with the medium. They also include related sculptures, drawings, and early paintings, to underscore her overarching concerns. She saw no “rivalry” between the mediums in which she worked. Instead, she said, they allowed her “to say same things, but in different ways.”

Architecture Embodied
In pursuit of emotional balance and stability, Bourgeois often made use of visual symbols derived from architecture. Her early study of mathematics may have attracted her to the rationality of the built environment. Yet the idiosyncratic structures she created often exhibit human features or reflect personal vulnerabilities. In prints and in early paintings, they become “actors” in invented narratives, sometimes standing alone, but also interacting in pairs or groups, as in the illustrations for her celebrated book He Disappeared into Complete Silence. Architectural structures and room-like chambers could express safety and refuge for Bourgeois, but also entrapment, as seen in her early Femme Maison imagery or her later sculpture Cell VI.

Abstracted Emotions
Bourgeois is best known for huge Spider sculptures and provocative figures and body parts, but her art also incorporated abstract forms throughout her long career. Straight lines, curves, circles, grids, and an array of biomorphic formations are found in all the mediums in which she worked. In Lullaby, her array of abstract shapes superimposed on the horizontal lines of music staves conjures up an imagined musical score. Bourgeois employed such forms for the function they served within a complicated psychological domain. Abstraction could be calming, with repeating forms or strokes, or offer a sense of stability through geometry, but it also expressed tension and anger.

Fabric of Memory
Bourgeois was raised in a family of tapestry restorers, but introduced fabric into her art only when she reached her eighties. Deciding she no longer needed all the clothes she had saved for years, or the household fabrics she stored, she began to incorporate dresses, slips, and coats within her sculptures, and to cut up cloth for stuffed figures and patterned collages. Bourgeois also began to make prints on fabric, enjoying the tactile qualities of the surfaces and the way they absorbed ink. She went on to create fabric books, such as Ode à l’Oubli, using old linen hand towels from her trousseau as pages, filled with abstract designs made from bits of garments.

Alone and Together
Throughout her career, Bourgeois employed the human figure as self-portraiture, as seen here in the provocative Sainte Sébastienne. She also depicted her relationships with others through figurative symbolism, such as the representations found in Self Portrait, which features one of her sons between his two parents. The figure, she said, helped “dissolve or appease my anxiety,” and her highly inventive imagery often combines elements of the real and the surreal. After intense psychoanalysis in the 1950s and 1960s, Bourgeois turned more directly to the physicality of the body, including an explicit sexuality; she examined a female/male continuum, and interactions between men and women. She also explored motherhood, from birth to its inevitable interdependencies.

Forces of Nature
Bourgeois was a keen observer of nature from childhood on, and was familiar with a wide variety of plants, flowers, shrubs, and fruit-bearing trees. Although she lived in New York as an adult, she spent summers at a country house in nearby Connecticut. There, as a young mother, she enjoyed interacting in nature with her three sons. In her art, she often found human correspondences in such elements as wind, storms, and rivers, or seeds and germination. And she related the body to the topography of the Earth, expressing an ongoing mutability between natural and bodily forms, as evident in the undulating hills of Lacs de Montagne ("Mountain Lakes").

Lasting Impressions
In the last years of her life—between the ages of 94 and 98—Bourgeois developed a highly innovative form of printmaking on a large scale, with the soft ground etching technique and extensive hand additions with brushes and pencils. The exhibition features the installation set À l’Infini, a landmark of that period, demonstrating what might be characterized as Bourgeois’s final “late style.” Here she creates a spontaneous, flowing, and tumultuous abstract world, suggesting primordial beginnings. Babies, a nude, and an entangled couple emerge from this whirling domain and call to mind many earlier figurative works by the artist, such as the bronze Arch of Hysteria.

Marron Atrium Installation
A series of large-scale soft ground etchings, completed when Bourgeois was in her midnineties, represents a period when her printmaking flourished. These works exhibit one of her singular visual strategies: the creation of highly suggestive yet abstract forms. They also highlight a recurring theme of the natural world, with curvilinear lines and organic shapes calling to mind seeds, roots, vines, flowers, hanging fruit, and sheaves of wheat, while sometimes hinting at parts of the body. One such example is Accumulations. The spider is a creature of nature that Bourgeois called “a friend” when it caught bothersome mosquitoes. But she also saw this crafty arachnid in symbolic terms, as representing her mother, a tapestry restorer. That reference is vividly represented in the exhibition by her massive Cell sculpture, Spider.

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