Louise Bourgeous’ Structure of Existence: The Cells
We look closer into the pivotal late artists’ monumental body of work, the Cells
Writer -Monique Kawecki
An influential figure in modern and contemporary art, Louise Bourgeois’ work is as complex and intelligent as the artist was herself. An American sculptor, painter and printmaker, she broke boundaries in her own work with the exercise of abstract forms and the endless possibilities of working with various media. Her lifetime from 1911 to 2010 has seen her work extend beyond genre, her created concepts and formal inventions now key moments in contemporary art. The work highly emotive, Bourgeois herself is a person of extreme highs and lows and it is this conscious and expressed emotion that not only was the instigator for her oeuvre, but continues to live on in her works.
Born in 1911 in Paris to French parents, Bourgeois’ mother and father owned a gallery that dealt with specific antique tapestries. With their business later moving to Choisy-le-Roi and focusing on tapestry restoration in a workshop below their apartment, Bourgeois would mend tapestries once they had been worn. A sensitive relationship with her father became important subject matter for Bourgeois later in her career. She described her mother as “an intelligent, patient and enduring, if not calculating, person” whom would turn a blind eye to her fathers infidelity with their English teacher and nanny. Personal life would become a big instigator for Bourgeois’ work, a way to aid in the healing of turbulent moments and repressed memories.
Bourgeois went on to study mathematics and geometry at the Sorbonne, but her mothers death in 1932 sparked a conversion to study art. She joined classes that required English-speaking students, whereby she would translate for free tuition. Graduating from the Sorbonne, Bourgeois went on to study at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Ecole du Louvre. Bourgeois frequently visited artists studios in Paris, learning techniques and assisting in any way possible.
Working in a print store one day Bourgeois met her future husband Robert Goldwater, an American art historian. Together they emigrated to New York City that same year, with Goldwater continuing his teaching and Bourgeois attending the Art Students League of New York to study painting in addition to producing prints and sculptures.
With emotion always at the core, sculpture remained a strength of Bourgeois’, and she would create early work from junkyard scraps and driftwood. This explained the situation for artists in New York at the time, and with the addition of being a female artist, it was quite a challenge for Bourgeois to gain any attention. In 1954 Bourgeois joined the American Abstract Artists Group and from here she transitioned from wood to marble, plaster and bronze. It was clear that there was now more confidence in her work, and any conflicts empowered her and her work and through this any attachment would be released.
“Space does not exist; it is just a metaphor for the structure of our existence.” Louise Bourgeois
Bourgeois was also a teacher at the Pratt Institute, Cooper Union, Brooklyn College and the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture in addition to various public schools on Long Island. During the 70s, Bourgeois would hold gatherings at her home in Chelsea. It was a terraced house on West 22nd Street that her and her husband had moved into in 1958, and Bourgeois continued to live and work there until the end of her life. Titled ‘Sunday, bloody Sunday’ the gatherings would find young artists and students bound in conversation with Bourgeois and their work often critiqued.
Bourgeois’ work would reference the female form in sexual and non-sexual examples, but she would refer to a deeper concept for the works explaining “For example, jealousy is not male or female”.* Works such as ‘Maman’ and ‘Janus Fleuri’ very well known, but it is the ‘Cells’ works which combine elements of theatre, interaction and emotion. Bourgeois was able to establish a connection between her art and certain traumas in her personal life which this acted as a release for Bourgeois. Her Cells work was based on this foundation.
In 1980 the acquisition of Bourgeois’ first large studio saw the extension to produce larger works. It was recognised that the rooms in her Chelsea townhouse were only around 4 metres in width, and this move to a larger studio saw Bourgeois create some of her greatest works. The Brooklyn studio also saw Bourgeois work with new raw materials, objects from the surrounding neighbourhood and even from Bourgeois’ own private life are found in certain Cell works. Steel shelves from a sewing factory in ‘Articulated Lair, 1986’, a water tank taken from the roof is used in ‘Precious Liquids, 1992’, and the spiral staircase Bourgeois kept when she had to evacuate the studio in 2005 was used in ‘Cell [The Last Climb], 2008’.
One of her last Cells, ’Cell [The Last Climb], 2008’ is showcased in Structures of Existence: The Cells, along with her other Cells works created over two decades. The Cell series is a large body of work, regarded as some of Bourgeois’ most sophisticated and innovative. The Cell series emphasise architectural space through their scale and viewer interaction. Although each Cell is an enclosure of its own world, it is one so humane that is easily identified and resonated with. Compiled with found objects, clothes, fabric and furniture, it is hard not to experience the emotionally charged Cells without them getting to ones core. There is a strong narrative in the theatrical sets in each Cell, that one can only be whisked (mentally, and in certain works physically) into each enclosure.
Bourgeois’ Cells work represent various emotions and in particular, pain: physical, motional and psychological. The entire series’ motivation of simultaneously remembering and forgetting, is best described by Bourgeois, “You have to tell your story and you have to forget your story. You forget and forgive. It liberates you.”*
“You have to tell your story and you have to forget your story. You forget and forgive. It liberates you.” Louise Bourgeois
Held in Munich’s Haus der Kunst in 2015, the exhibition ‘Structures of Existence: The Cells’ is the largest overview presentation of this particular body of work to date. Planned and organised by the Haus der Kunst curator Julienne Lorz, who worked closely with Bourgeois’ long-term assistant and carer Jerry Gorovoy to complete its display. Including five precursor works that emerged with ’Articulated Lair’ in 1986, Bourgeois created a total of 60 Cells, of which 30 are displayed in the Haus der Kunst (along with 2 precursor works).
Curator Julienne Lorz explains that Bourgeois’ Cells “occupy a place somewhere between museum panoramic, theatrical staging, environment, installation, and sculpture, which, in this form and quantity, is without precedent in the history of art”.* They are a new sculptural category. Two titans coming together for an experience that is almost impossible to replicate anywhere else, Structures Of Existence: The Cells is one of the most powerful museum experiences one can have with a remarkable body of work such as this. Delving deeper into the work of Louise Bourgeois, a new understanding of her work is found by viewers by interacting with her works.
This article was first featured in our print edition, Ala Champ Magazine Issue 10 ‘The Champion Womens Edition’ on occasion of the exhibition Structures Of Existence: The Cells at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany (2015).