Louise Bourgeois – Full-career retrospective at The Guggenheim

Guggenheim Museum, New York

Louise Bourgeois
Full-career retrospective
Exhibition > 28 September 2008

Louise Bourgeois, a full-career retrospective of one of the most important artists of our time, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Organized by The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in association with Tate Modern, London, and Centre Pompidou, Paris, the exhibition fills the Guggenheim’s entire Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda and an adjacent gallery, making it the most comprehensive examination to date of Bourgeois’s long and distinguished career.

Louise Bourgeois in 1990 with her marble sculpture Eye to Eye (1970).
Photo: Raimon Ramis
© Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois encompasses representative selections from all of the major phases of the artist’s career. Visitors are greeted in the museum’s rotunda by one of Bourgeois’ iconic spider sculptures, Spider Couple, 2003, and a pair of hanging aluminium works dating from 2004 that draw on another of her signature motifs, the spiral.

Appropriately, this recurring form in the artist’s iconography finds a corollary in the unique structure of the Guggenheim’s spiralling ramps, on which the works are arranged along predominantly chronological lines. Throughout the exhibition, the works on paper that are an integral and constant element of Bourgeois’ creative process are juxtaposed with her sculptural works.

The main body of the exhibition begins with paintings and drawings dating from the mid-1940s that depict female bodies half eclipsed in architectural structures – a vision of the “femme maison” whose identity is literally subsumed by the responsibilities and constrictions of the domestic role. These works are interspersed by an installation of Bourgeois’ Personnages in the High Gallery.
These anthropomorphic wooden totems, created as surrogates for the artist’s former life in France, are placed in staggered relational groupings, echoing their original installation in a series of solo exhibitions at the Peridot Gallery in New York between 1949 and 1953.

Continuing up the ramps, the transitional multi-part sculpture The Blind Leading the Blind, 1947-49, introduces smaller groupings of Personnages. These slightly later works diverge from monolithic rigidity in favor of multiple segments threaded onto a central rod, such as Femme Volage, 1951, or the stacked columns of blocks that characterize Memling Dawn, 1951.

Louise Bourgeois
The Blind Leading the Blind, 1947-1949
Wood, painted pink
70 3/8 x 96 7/8 x 17 3/8”; 178.7 x 246 x 44.1 cm
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington USA)
© Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois
Cumul I, 1968
Marble, wood plinth
20 1/16 x 50 x 48 1/16 inches (51 x 127 x 122 cm)
Fonds National d’art contemporain
Attribution au Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou en 1976
Centre Pompidou, Paris
Musée national d’art moderne / Centre de création industrielle
© Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois
Steel, fabric, bone, wood, glass, rubber and mixed media
Overall: 117 x 87 x 87 inches (297.2 x 221 x 221 cm)
Whitney Museum of American Art
© Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois
Fabric, leather, stainless steel and plastic
20 x 65 x 30 1/2”; 50.8 x 165.1 x 77.4 cm.
Wood and glass Victorian vitrine: 72 x 82 x 43”; 182.9 x 208.3 x 109.2 cm.
Courtesy Cheim & Read, Galerie Karsten Greve, and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Christopher Burke
© Louise Bourgeois

Around 1960 Bourgeois began to exploit the sculptural possibilities of a new repertoire of malleable materials such as plaster, latex, and resin, creating amorphous organic forms that evoke the human body and natural topographies. Works in this section of the exhibition such as Lair, 1962, and Fée Couturière, 1963, present roughly textured enclosed structures, suggesting both protective nests and sinister traps.

This characteristic ambiguity of reference is extended in the limp, indeterminate biomorphic forms of such seminal works as Janus Fleuri, 1968 and Filette, 1968, as well as in Bourgeois’ first major environmental sculpture, The Destruction of the Father, 1974 – a grisly evocation of a cannibalistic family meal. The exhibition continues with a broad selection of sculptures executed primarily in marble and bronze, in which the pliable softness of Bourgeois’ formal vocabulary is offset by the hard inflexibility of these traditional mediums. Many of these works are abstractions formed from the smooth, globular protuberances that the artist refers to as Cumuls (“clouds”). Others, such as the hanging bronze, Arch of Hysteria, 1993, render anatomical form with a new verisimilitude. An adjacent gallery displays Confrontation, 1978 – a tableaux of latex forms ringed by wooden barriers that are shown alongside archival footage of the performance that accompanied the piece when it was first exhibited.

The museum’s final ramps are devoted primarily to Bourgeois’ Cells – the large-scale enclosed installations that the artist produced throughout the 1990s. Incorporating both found or personal objects and carved sculptures within structures that are simultaneously claustrophobic prisons and shielding cloisters, these complex assemblages are vessels for deeply autobiographical, psychological narratives. The exhibition culminates with a selection of recent fabric-based sculptures. In these unsettling works, stuffed heads, torsos and intertwined figures – some of which are stitched from the Bourgeois’ own clothes and household linens – enact a primal drama of sexual and familial relationships.

Installation view at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008

Installation view of Spider Couple, Untitled, and Untitled at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008
© Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation New York
Photo by David Heald


The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue providing an overview of Bourgeois’ life and work. Taking the form of an A-Z glossary, the catalogue encompasses relevant themes, individual works, select quotations, and succinct essays, all interspersed with examples of the artist’s own writings. It also includes an illustrated biography and a full chronology. Published by Tate Publishing, the hard cover edition is distributed through Rizzoli at a cost of $45 in soft cover and $65 in hard cover. Both editions are for purchase the Guggenheim Museum store.

In conjunction with the major retrospective of Louise Bourgeois, the Guggenheim’s Sackler Center for Arts Education presents through September 12 “A Life in Pictures: Louise Bourgeois, an exhibition of photographs and diaries from the artist’s archives.

Read more here

4 Responses to “Louise Bourgeois – Full-career retrospective at The Guggenheim”

  1. […] Louise Bourgeois – Full-career retrospective at The Guggenheim > 28 September 2008 […]

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  4. […] a tasty Malaysian restaurant called New Malaysia. After a quick trip to the Guggenheim to see the Louise Bourgeois exhibit for paywhatyoucan, Mark and I came here to fill our gullets. We ordered the Sambal Beef and the […]

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