interview with artist Louise Bourgeois
If you ask young artists whose work really speaks to them, may will answer 'Louise Bourgeois.' They are not alone. Bourgeois just might be the busiest artist around. She's been having exhibitions all over the world - from a huge, Impressive show at the Fondazione Prada in Milan this past spring to a major retrospective opening at the Yokohama Museum of Art In Tokyo In November. She's also been responsible for some of the most Inspiring public sculptures of our time, such as a piece called The Welcoming Hands, installed at the tip of Manhattan in Battery Park. (Les Bienvenus, a work with a similar theme, has been placed in Choisy-le-Roi, France, where the artist grew up.) On September 29, President Clinton awarded Bourgeois the National Medal of the Arts, the nation's highest honor for visual arts. Despite always been: the real thing, through and through - witty, wise, and absolutely possessed and obsessed by her work.
INGRID SlSCHY: What do you think it was, Louise, that made you want to be an artists?
LOUISE BOURGEOIS: It was when I discovered that artists can be useful. Did you ever hear that an artist was useful?
IS: What one hears is usually the opposite. that artists are useless.
IS: So how come you had a different take?
LB: My parents were involved in the arts; they repaired tapestries. And when the draftsman failed to come when he was supposed to on Saturdays - he worked all week at the Gobelins - my mother panicked. So she said, "Can you help?" And I said, "Yes, I'd love it."
IS: Aha. So you were useful even as a kid. How old were you then?
LB: I was twelve.
IS: And how did your parents know that you'd be able to do it?
LB: At school, art was important, and from the beginning I was an overachiever. That is to say, if you flatter me, or if you look at me the right way, I will kill myself to please you. It's very painful to be an overachiever. Anyway, in art class I was not any better than anybody else, to tell you the truth - but I tried to make believe that I was. And I worked like a dog. I knew how to use a pen. So when the draftsman did not come, I would sit in for him. That is the way it started. And I still have this philosophy today: Artists have to be useful. They have to fill a role.
IS: And what did your parents do with the tapestries? Sell them?
LB: Certainly. Often to Americans whose tastes were dictated by the Puritan tradition. If you look at the tapestries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there are genitals everywhere. And the American puritanical attitude absolutely forbid that. So one of my mother's duties was to cut them out and put a bunch of flowers there, so it would not offend the moralities of the collectors.
It was because of the collectors that I learned English: I had to deal with them. And to this day, I find it very difficult to talk to collectors.
IS: Especially since you don't put flowers where people want them.
LB: Right. [laughs]
IS: [laughs] How was it when you told your parents that you wanted to be an artist?
LB: It made my father climb the walls. To him artists were parasites who seduced women and abandoned them.
IS: Your parents have always figured large in your work. Tell us something about that.
LB: There are very significant reasons for it. For instance, my mother contracted the Spanish flu at the end of the war in 1918. In France it was called the Spanish flu. But it was a plague. Everybody thought that people would die like flies, but she recovered, even though forever after that she had emphysema. And my second nature, you see, was to please. To please my father, I took care of my mother. We treated the tapestries and we repaired them. And by extension I treated my mother and tried to repair her. I spent all my time repairing things.
My mother was not very interested in sex after being sick. So a mistress was a logical consequence. My father did not want to have any more children around. He had enough. And he wanted to make sure he would not be accused of having enfants with his mistress, so she had to be a foreigner. It was a legal precaution. She was always a foreigner who came to France to teach us English, so she had a useful place in the house. But if she became pregnant, he sent her back to England.
IS: And she didn't become pregnant?
LB: They did. There were many.
IS: These are some of the things that come up In your work, which is why it's so powerful - there's nothing like real life. You have always worked with memory and the stories of your life. Why?
LB: Yes, right. I want to get rid of them. And in order to forget all these histories, you have to forgive. If you are resentful, you keep the thing alive. So the way to go on is to get rid of it, in order to forgive in order to forget.
IS: In your early twenties, what were you doing?
JERRY GOROVOY (who has worked for Bourgeois more than fifteen years): Louise went from the lycee to study mathematics at the Sorbonne. Then she became disillusioned, so she started to move toward art by going to all the academies.
LB: I got myself a free education. My father was rich and stingy - both. And he did not want to pay for my education. In France it is very contrary to this country. You can go the full range and not pay anything: It is your right to be educated. So that gave him an argument: "I don't have to pay for your education. You are on your own."
So how could I get an education? With all the academies I went to, I spoke English, so I was useful again. Even though my English is a broken English, you would be surprised how far it's gotten me in France. Nobody criticized my English, because they didn't know it themselves. And then when I got married-
IS: Which was?
LB: I got married very late. Because my father tried to get me married. So the resistance in me became -
IS: Of course. And when you finally got married -
LB: It was with somebody who spoke English and never criticized my English. We had a pact that I would not criticize his French if he did not criticize my English.
IS: Sounds like a perfect start.
JG: Louise considers herself a runaway girl.
IS: She sure is.
JG: All her career, her work, everything - she s always called herself an American artist.
IS: Do you think there was something about America that got you to actually make the work?
LB: Yes - tat I would not have to face the mistress and a dysfunctional family.
IS: So America freed you?
LB: Right. It's the runaway girl: She doesn't know what she's going to find, but she knows that she wants something else.
IS: So how did you find that something else?
JG: Louise started making work when she arrived. They were living in a small apartment, so she was mostly doing works on paper: drawings and paintings. And they had two children fairly quickly, then a third one shortly thereafter. There was no room, really, to do sculpture in the apartment. So she painted. Her first show was in 1945, but the first sculptural show was not until '49. Although she was working on sculpture from around '42 on, it wasn't until she found a roof on the building where she lived that she started to build those first pieces. Then she had three sculptural shows in a row. All of the works were personages. Basically, Louise said it was all the people she had left behind. She wanted to re-create them.
That was a very important group of work Louise did, and now it's being acknowledged as such. But it took a long time. I think people weren't sure what to do with a French artist like Louise. She knew the European circle, and she wasn't an American. And they wanted an American artist.
IS: And she was a woman - which didn't help since all the big shots were men.
JG: Yes. But for Louise's work, it was a good moment. After the '53 show, she sort of slowly retreated, and basically she didn't resurface again until the '60s. By that point the work had changed. She moved away from the rigidity of wood to softer material, like plaster and latex and wax. In 1966 Lucy Lippard put Louise in a show called "Eccentric Abstraction." That was a very important show. It sort of brought Louise back.
LB: It's very strange. I did not mind having no exposure for a certain time. In fact it helped me: It helped develop a personal view, because I had no influences - I worked all by myself.
IS: What's fascinating to me is how your early work has been explained as surrealism.
LB: Oh, that was a big mistake. Surrealism is anathema for me. Because the surrealists made a joke of everything. And I consider life a tragedy.
IS: But you've never been part of a group?
LB: No, no. That's fine with me. I am a lonely runner, but I am a long-distance runner.
JG: At different times I think groups claimed her because of an affinity. LB: Well, the feminists claimed me, and feminism is one aspect of my work, but it isn't the basis.
IS: To me what makes your work so spellbinding is that the story keeps going - like the Toi et Moi piece you've done for the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris.
LB: Toi et Moi is a piece that I worked on for three years. It represents basically a system of ogives [diagonal arches across a Gothic vault]. And it goes way up - it shoots up toward the ceiling. It's completely abstract, and it invites people who are sitting down at the bottom to look up and see their reflection in the polished surface-something very modern. It is made of cast aluminum and then polished to a mirror shine. So the people sitting down, waiting for God-knows-what in the library, lift up their faces and see themselves distorted in the ceiling, and it occupies their mind. It is a very restful arrangement. Everything fits into everything else, as in geometry. And it also has irony, because when you look at the polished surfaces, you are completely deformed and grotesque; you seem ridiculous.
IS: There have been so many new projects, it's hard to know where to begin. But I'm crazy about the pieces you've been doing with the clothes from all periods of your life threaded together and hanging from a pole.
LB: The hangers that I made for these pieces are the "bones of contention."
JG: Louise saved all these garments over the years. They were given to her, either by her parents or her husband or me or someone else. And they all have a story. She knows who gave her the clothes, where she wore them, who she was with. They're the equivalent of a diary, so they really trigger moments in time.
IS: Even if you don't know those memories, you see the pieces and they evoke so much. They're emotional and physical - like another subject you've really been going to town with lately: the spiders. Your spiders sure have been getting big!
LB: They are not going to get any bigger. [laughs]
JG: The spider was an ode to her mother.
LB: The spider is an animal who eats mosquitoes. That's why I love the spider - it is the only way we have to deal with these insects.
IS: So the spider becomes a here.
LB: That's right, absolutely: a hero, It is a feminine hero. And there is something else, too: At the beginning of AIDS, it was thought that mosquitoes carded the virus. That was not true. But it is true of malaria, which still ravages hundreds of thousands of people.
IS: The spider as a hero again.
JG: Also the spider is a weaver, and that takes us back to Louise's tapestry background.
IS: When I look at her spiders, what I see is what's not there-which is the webs. I think about all of Louise's stories and all the ways they interconnect with her life and ours.
LB: Yes. The web becomes a metaphor for connection-making.
JG: This is something Louise wrote in the text accompanying Ode a Ma Mere, a suite of nine drypoint etchings of spiders: "The friend, the araignee, pourquoi?" ["Why the spider?"]
LB: "Because my best friend was my mother, and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and useful as an araignee. She could also defend herself, and me, by refusing to answer stupid, inquisitive, embarrassing, personal questions."
IS: I like that as the end.