Louise Bourgeois, the seemingly ageless matron of contemporary sculpture, passed away Monday in Manhattan at 98. She left behind a legacy of boldly expressive works that have influenced generations of artists over the past several decades.
We’re lucky to have a glimpse of Bourgeois in action, found in the documentary Art City: Making It in Manhattan. Her scenes are brief, but vivid. We get a comical glimpse into her morning ritual (“You go around and clean and clean and then you start your face and you pull your hair and you comb your hair…”). We get a wry analysis of a sculpture that looks innocent from one angle, only to reveal its risque side with a slight turn. And we get a nugget of wisdom from an artist who’s outlasted more than most:
“Artists are not made, they are born. There is very little you can do for them… The artist is afraid of many things, in fact, its whole life is based on fear. But in fact the fears of children are not the same fears as the fears of adults… The artist expresses things that grown-ups are afraid to admit.”
Some knowledge of Bourgeois’ formative experiences can shed light on her above quote. As an eleven-year old girl in Paris, Bourgeois witnessed her father engaging in an affair with her live-in English tutor, which would last for ten years. Meanwhile, she also took care of her invalid mother. These childhood traumas would haunt Bourgeois throughout her life, investing her art with a deeply autobiographical subtext.
It is this “confessional” mode of art that has proven highly influential on subsequent generations, particularly among female artists, in finding abstract and evocative ways to express the deepest, most painful emotions.