The third artist in our series for Women’s History Month is Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010). Bourgeois was a French artist who was best known for her large-scale sculpture work but was also known as a prolific painter and printmaker. She explored a variety of themes over the course of her long career including domesticity and the family, sexuality and the body, as well as death and the unconscious. Although Bourgeois exhibited with the Abstract Expressionists and her work has much in common with Surrealism and Feminist art, she was not formally affiliated with a particular artistic movement.
Bourgeois originally went to school for mathematics and geometry, but with her mother’s passing in the 1930s she turned to art as therapy for her depression. She attended several different academies and artists’s ateliers in Paris, and took classes at the Académie de la Grande-Chaumière, the École des Beaux-Arts, and the École du Louvre. Bourgeois also studied with Fernand Léger, a famous French painter, sculptor, and filmmaker, who urged her to try doing sculpture work.
In 1938, Bourgeois met and married the American art historian Robert Goldwater and moved to New York City. She enrolled in the Art Students League, and by 1945 she had her first solo exhibition of paintings at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York. During the mid-1940s, she began to create wooden sculptures, and in 1949, Bourgeois exhibited this work for the first time in a solo show, Recent Work 1947–1949: Seventeen Standing Figures in Wood, at the Peridot Gallery, New York. She also experimented with engravings, drypoint, reliefs, and aquatint during this time.
Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Bourgeois’s work was presented in various group exhibitions with Abstract Expressionist artists, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. In 1951, her father passed away, which led to Bourgeois isolating herself in her depression. It wasn’t until 1964 that she had her first exhibition again at the Stable Gallery, New York. This new sculpture work from Bourgeois was made of plaster and latex, rather than the wood she usually worked with. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Bourgeois frequently traveled to Italy to practice sculpture work in marble and bronze. After her husband’s death in 1973, she created The Destruction of the Father, which was shown for the first time in a solo show at 112 Greene Street in 1974.
In 1982, Louise Bourgeois: Retrospective opened at the Museum of Modern Art – it was MoMA’s first retrospective devoted to a female artist. Bourgeois acquired a larger studio in 1980 and began to work on large-scale sculpture art, and in 1994 installed her first Spider at the Brooklyn Museum (now in the Tate Gallery). In 2000, the Tate Gallery of Modern Art commissioned Bourgeois for the inaugural installation of the museum’s new location at the Turbine Hall of the Bankside Power Station. She presented a thirty-foot steel and marble spider, Maman (1999), and conceived three steel architectural towers titled I Do, I Undo, and I Redo (1999–2000). Bourgeois also created and made casts of several other large-scale spider sculptures which are in Ottawa, Canada, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Japan, and four other locations. Through the 2000s, Bourgeois continued to create sculptures and began to do more screen printing and lithography work. In 2007, another major retrospective of her work was organized by the Tate Modern and the Centre Pompidou. Bourgeois continued to make art until her death in 2010.
Throughout her life, Bourgeois received multiple awards and honors for her work. In 1983, Bourgeois was named Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French minister of culture. Other honors included the Grand Prix National de Sculpture from the French government in 1991; the National Medal of Arts, presented by President Bill Clinton in 1997; the first-lifetime achievement award from the International Sculpture Center in Washington D.C; and election as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2008, the French Legion of Honor medal was presented to Bourgeois by President Nicolas Sarkozy in the artist’s Chelsea home.
“About the Artist”. Louise Bourgeois: The Complete Prints and Books, https://www.moma.org/s/lb/curated_lb/about/biography.html.
“Bibliography.” Louise Bourgeois’s The Easton Foundation, www.theeastonfoundation.org/biography.