In an interview with Christiane Meyer-Thoss some time ago1, the sculptor Louise Bourgeois, born in Paris in 1911 but a resident of New York since 1938, was asked about being invited to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale that year (1993). She said: “This has been the story of my career: for many years, fortunately, my works didn’t sell, neither for profit nor for other reasons. I was very productive because no one was trying to copy my lexicon. I had been heard of over the years because of some of my exhibitions, but I had sold little. And in America, selling is tantamount to success. My image has remained my own, and for this I am very grateful. I worked in peace for forty years. The production of my work has had nothing to do with its potential or eventual sale. The market, whether positive or negative, continues to have no effect on me.”
Prolific, solitary, swimming against the tide: over the years Bourgeois has tenaciously made her artistic work into space of lucid self-analysis. Convinced of the need not to be distracted from herself and from what is useful, and, even more importantly, from what is inevitable, to confront the past, with its ghosts of childhood and family, as well as the traces inscribed on the body, the artist has chosen sculpture as a means of reminiscence/personal history and also expression. Indifferent to the cultural fashions and artistic trends that have gradually dominated our century, yet still aware of them, she pursued her own path that only towards the end of the seventies began to intersect with the tastes and the new directives of the art market. This is how, at seventy years of age and without ever moving away from a personal, rigorous line of investigation, Louise Bourgeois found herself representing the prevailing aesthetic discourse, as well as the political and social questions, of the age.
We met at her home in New York at eleven in the morning. With her was Jerry Gorovoy2, her assistant and manager, who over time became a sort of guardian deity, a gentle and reassuring presence, the ironic, patient alter-ego of the artist. Able to handle the purely “verbal” communication that Louise finds tiresome as well as the initial distrust — there were tests to which this journalist dutifully submitted — of yet another interview. “Five minutes of glory, just because they invited me to the Venice Biennale,” complains Bourgeois, attributing her and Jerry’s weariness and irritation to what appears to be a real media assault. “They always ask me the same questions, and I really do not like talking. I speak through my work.” She moves around me, refusing to sit down and, initially, to speak with the tape recorder on. Her manner/behavior seems to be an inverted Freudian “away/here” scenario, instinctive and at the same time ironic and theatrical.
Using the topography of her house, she begins a sort of dance, full of entrances and exits. One moment she is standing in front of me, hands resting on the table with the direct and suspicious look of someone who senses danger, and the next moment she has vanished. Sucked into the circular labyrinth of the rooms, she speaks to me from elsewhere, and her off-screen voice is almost imperceptible. It is Jerry who calls her back and reminds her that in this way her words risk vanishing. She returns each time bringing something: a photograph, a drawing, an object, to restart the discussion — from the exact point where I feared it was lost.
As will become clear, this interview therefore consists of three voices: Louise, Jerry and the writer. When necessary, I note the artist’s movements within the space of her home, the temporal pauses between her exits and subsequent returns, and the images that accompany the words as if to render them corporeal and return that substance to the artist as well, submerged by the anxiety of being imprisoned (betrayed?) in the incomplete and distorted paradoxes of disembodied verbal communication.
Maria Nadotti: Let’s start from what’s happening now, regarding the Biennale of Venice: which works do you plan to show?
Jerry Gorovoy: There will be twelve recent works. These include Cells, a series of six environment-installations that, like everything Louise makes, deal with anxiety and panic. At their center is the body of the family and the human body, as in Arch of Hysteria (1992/93), where the arch is positioned towards a male anatomy. The idea is both to comment on and challenge the current notion that hysteria is a female phenomenon.
Louise Bourgeois: At the end of the twentieth century, hysteria can no longer be considered a female disease. As you can see, I cut off the head and arms to the male body because they weren’t necessary: to avoid falling, one can just put oneself on the ground. The hysterical arch speaks of suffering but also of expression, of illness but also of communication.
MN: Christian Leigh3 wrote: “Cells is a work that suggests entrances and exits, doors and windows, rooms imagined and evoked by a configuration of wooden planks. And although there are openings on all sides, there is no sense of this being a place that one can leave, however numerous the ways out. We enter and we stay, at least for a while. This experience remains with us long time after its physical manifestation has ended. It’s not that you feel trapped. Our captivity within the work is self-inflicted. We enter of our own will and our psyche asks us to stay. That which happens depends as much on thought, on sensations, and on memory, as on experience. […] Cells talks about issues that in recent times had been forbidden in art. The pure emotionality of Bourgeois’s objects is found in the social or human sciences. […] In them pain is concretized, it takes on shape and form. In other words, it is all that, according to the prevailing current notion, our industrial culture has surpassed, as if pain could ever be overcome. Bourgeois represents the unrepresentable (emotional experience and perceptive experience) in the attempt to make pain real, a pain long denied either openly or implicitly, with such force and for so long. […] Cells gives us a perceptive rather than an intellectual experience. This work brings together a litany of connections and other signifiers. Intuitive knowledge reigns supreme.” In Cells, as in all of Bourgeois’s work, an interest in psychoanalysis and an in-depth knowledge of Freudian discourse are evident. Is this the result of a direct analytical experience or something else?
JG: No, Louise has never been in analysis. She has read and she has lived. Art has been her psychoanalysis. What happens to her is what is real for her. It is experience that changes us. Once we have experienced something, there is no way to be the same as before. When we talk we can lie, we can exaggerate. But when one passes through something and the body physically experiences it, there is no way to pretend: we have changed. For Louise, completing a job means feeling different: she has experienced something and this makes her a different person than she was before.
LB: Speaking in visual terms, this is very personal. I’m not afraid of the personal. I don’t worry about it, except that for me it’s painful. Because the spoken word is something that does not work, that is insufficient. The external environment is not enough. (Returning to the room, returning to the discussion about the self-sufficiency of the word, Louise brings a red-ink drawing with her — on the lower right is a small spherical body filled with tiny half-flattened spheres, with the rest of the sheet invaded diagonally by aggressive waves or spray —, which she tells me that she made that morning while waiting for me). Take this design: there is nothing abstract about it, it is very readable. This (referring to the small sphere) is a pomegranate, absolutely beautiful. If you open it you have the vision of the world. So this is a pomegranate and this (referring to the rest of the design) is what the interviewers do. It’s pure chance to be famous for five minutes leading up to the Venice Biennale. I realize this. But it’s so painful that I feel like … (she makes a noise like a roar, the cry of a wounded animal, a wail). Do you know what you do with a pomegranate? You twist it, you squeeze it, because you want to take the juice away from it. This drawing is a self-portrait, a portrait of my whole self, I admit it. Creating it protected me from the chaos represented by these small drops, this total, precise chaos. Here’s what you do to me: it’s crystal clear what’s happening to me.
MN: Louise and Maria…
LB: Exactly, just like that. But the pomegranate is not empty. It endures. It’s not finished.
MN: But at the same time it seems that you like being interviewed a bit….
LB: It’s not that I like it. I appreciate it, because I feel better after. It’s a fruitful experience, but not if it scares me. I suspect that this is the effect that verbal psychoanalysis has on people who love to talk. I seem like a verbal person but actually I am not.
MN: Yes you are.
LB: Yes, but there are other ways of going deeper.
JG: This is the key to understanding why Louise has never been in analysis. For her, words have never had a relationship to the body. For the psychoanalyst the body is absent, and the word doesn’t really affect the physical. When you try something new, you experience a change in heartbeat, in perspiration. This is why Louise does not like to paint or draw. She chose sculpture because it is more closely connected to the body. For her, things that are two-dimensional don’t have the same reality. In fact, when she draws she has to make hundreds of drawings, because repetition compensates, at least partially, for this corporeal non-presence.
LB: It’s not just about my body. In one of the pieces going to Venice there is more, a substitute body, a surrogate body. It’s the body of Jerry, who was kind enough to help me, to be the model for the Hysterical Arch. (Louise stops and says that it would be a good idea to watch a few videos together, because she wants to stop the interview, and because the video would help me understand better). This discussion is too abstract. There is no body here. (To Jerry) Show her the tapes. She will find the answers she is looking for there.
JG: No, not now. Maria has questions of her own. We will watch the tapes at the end.
MN: In addition to sculpture, painting and drawing, you have also done a couple of performance art pieces: Confrontation (New York, 1979) and She Lost It (Philadelphia, 1992), using actors and actresses but not yourself. How do you work with other bodies?
JG: Well, sometimes by imprisoning them in the performance.
LB: It’s to make them ridiculous. The scene of the crime. You need to understand the scene of the crime. Where does the tragedy come from? What is the origin of the trauma?
JG: With “scene of the crime” Louise is referring to the trauma experienced during childhood. Through her work she revisits this.
LB: “Scene of the crime” in quotations, because I have never hurt a fly. I don’t hurt people. The fly is there and I observe it from afar.
MN: But you have been hurt.
LB: Yes, that’s true, exactly. In Scene of the Crime, I was the victim. But with strength and with strength of will I was able to change from a passive role to an active one, and now I can do to Jerry what was done to me.
MN: Was it hard to find Jerry?
LB: No, no, but listen, Jerry is a saint.
MN: There aren’t many of those around….
LB: There are few of them, because to be one requires a great intelligence.
MN: And a strong sense of self…
LB: (Louise bursts out laughing, in satisfaction) Well, then maybe you should interview Jerry.
MN: This is very intriguing.
LB: Watching the performance of Philadelphia (1993), you can see that he resisted, that he actually refused. Very, very funny. It’s not the sublime, it’s the ridiculous, the theater of the ridiculous.
MN: Talk to me about your father and your mother, and about you as the mother of three children.
LB: I am an excellent mother because I am an accepting mother. I don’t ask anything of my children. As long as they don’t go to war, prison or into the hospital, as long as they don’t end up in one of those places, I am happy. This is all that I ask. I don’t expect or insist on anything else. You can speak with them if you like.
JG: Louise also took care of her mother when she was ill.
LB: My mother suffered from pulmonary emphysema. This is why my family, very bourgeois and European, spent winters in the south of France. I remember how, to give her some relief, I would place suction cups on her chest. I became her full-time nurse and this was central to my development. Years later, I wanted to do the same thing, place suction cups on Jerry’s body. Art as therapy, art as medicine. Just look at the series of sculptures I made with the suction cups (see Ventouse, 1990).
MN: Louise has also taught. Can the teacher-student relationship overshadow that of the mother-child or parent-child?
JG: Louise has taught, but not for long periods of time and never full-time. She taught in the 1970s, after her husband’s death. But she never enjoyed it: it tired her out, and on top of that she has never believed that art can be taught. You can teach it only if the students really love you. But many students are hostile.
MN: When speaking with artists, and especially younger artists, I have often heard Louise described as a symbolic mother, as a model.
JG: They see her as someone who has dealt with the same themes and questions that they are dealing with today. Except that Louise has done it, without compromising, her whole life. I think that they also see her as an artist who has demonstrated that one can have success regardless of circumstance, proof that even women can make it, regarding both the marketplace and critical reception.
MN: But it’s taken a lifetime.
JG: Yes, and on top of that she didn’t even try to succeed. People plot, manipulate, and employ myriad strategies to succeed. Louise never had a strategy. You ask how she became famous? It just happened. The explanation lies in a series of reasons. First, when Abstraction and Formalism collapsed, people’s interest turned to imagination, sexuality, the narrative, the personal, the autobiographical. At the beginning of the 1970s, there was a real changing of the guard in the art world. There was an inversion, a shift in sensibility. And when this shift was recognized, there was Louise, who had been working for forty years on the same questions that new generations of artists were just beginning to confront. Louise’s reputation is not built in comparison with her peers, but rather with the artists of subsequent generations who saw her work and made her their point of reference, their model. I repeat, it was not her own generation that grasped her significance, but younger artists engaged in a decisive rejection of pure Formalism. It’s not that Louise didn’t care about form. The fact is, in contrast to many others, including Greenberg, her discussion/message has never been limited to an exploration of form or materials.Feminism is probably another element that put Louise in the limelight.
LB: Feminists have adopted me as a model, as a mother, which irritates me. I am not interested in being their mother. This really annoys me. This is not the point. I am still a young girl trying to understand herself, not a mother. I was a real mother, and I took care of my children. This wasn’t a problem for me.
MN: Three sons, no daughter.
LB: No, thank God. It’s hard enough with sons, but with a daughter it’s a losing battle. Because, look, sons really love you. I’m not so sure that it’s the same with daughters. In any event girls are more complicated, and I was spared at least this.
MN: What do you think about women? Do you feel solidarity, competition, anger, envy?
LB: That’s too vague a question. I will answer you by telling you to look at one of my old pieces, The Blind Leading the Blind (1947/49).
MN: Let’s talk about the father figure. In many of your works you have broken this down, ridiculed it, even cannibalized it. It’s as if you had a reckoning to make with your family’s past, to take revenge for yourself and maybe also for your mother. Do you see a real difference between father figures, men in power, and sons?
MN: But don’t you think that, sooner or later, all men become “fathers”?
LB: No, not all men are powerful.
JG: I think you are generalizing. Regarding father figures, Louise is referring to men who take themselves too seriously: pompous, pontificating, well established in positions of power, they don’t even understand how they acquired that position and think that rules don’t apply to them.
MN: Let me put the question a different way. In a work from 1947/49, The Dagger Child, you show an armed child, a threat, in the process of wounding his mother through his needs. So, on the one hand you have powerful, bullying men, and on the other hand children weak because of their dependence [on their mothers]. Is there no chance for women to deal with mature men who don’t continually play power games or blackmail? Or must they become saints?
JG: (Laughs) Are you saying that women don’t do the same thing? A daughter can also blackmail her mother. I don’t think it’s a question of gender.
LB: An explosion of anger, seen from a child’s point of view, has two protagonists: the big person and the little person. In certain cases, when the conflict is between two reasonable people, things don’t have to get too tense. But even tension can be a form of blackmail: if you don’t do what I want, I will kill myself: I transfer the responsibility for my death to YOU. That’s difficult to accept. Once when a certain [female] friend of mine tried this game on me – If you don’t love me, I’ll kill myself – I responded, please kill yourself; I’m going to the movies.
LB: She was strong enough to refuse any personal responsibility. But this holds true for men and women of all ages.
MN: Let’s return to the topic of the father, and your desire to get revenge by ridiculing him.
LB: That is the goal of the whole project: from passive victim to actor. Art is revenge. You made me suffer, and I make Jerry suffer. You did it to me and I do it to someone else.
MN: Do you feel the need to avenge yourself against women as well?
LB: It’s not a question of gender. Power games don’t have anything to do with your gender. A child of three may refuse to eat, his mother forces him, he pushes back, she insists. Come on, please, come on (Louise mimics the scene, her voice a whimpering whine). Come on, eat, otherwise you’ll die. And the child thinks: I would be happy to die, if only to be free of you. It’s circular. The sex is irrelevant. It’s about hostility and resistance.
MN: Are there any female artists that you particularly admire?
LB: (Louise leaves the room and returns with a book that she pages through with me. It’s a collection of works by female painters from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.) If you look at the prints carefully you will see that these are technically beautiful works. The person who edited this collection loved everything of high quality. Not me. For me it’s the subject that counts. Look at this painting, purely in the tradition of Chardin. If you look closely you will see that here too there is a pomegranate. Often these are still lifes, a traditional genre for women. Many didn’t make it even in this sector, to which female artists were often relegated even if they were as good as or better than the men. The still life as ghetto, considered second-rate, where fathers locked up women artists and where nonetheless many of them showed themselves to be marvelously talented even as they accepted a secondary role. I decided to collect them, to serve as mementos.
MN: Do you know Artimisia Gentileschi?
LB: Yes, of course.
MN: Well, she didn’t really accept a secondary role and her paintings express real fury, born of a radical rejection of such a role.
LB: And yet, here she is. All of these women, who through their work were able to show their talent as great artists, are very dear to me. As for me, I have reached an age where I have achieved acceptance. Today what I care about is finding a way to express myself and my aggressiveness, and I think that I have found that. I am not battling anyone. I fight within myself, and with my materials: wood cut in every possible way, the resistance of stone and marble, the malleability of wax and fusions.
JG: The materials and the physicality of the endeavor are very important to Louise. Cutting is an aggressive act. There are times when she doesn’t feel like cutting, and times when she’s in the mood to put things together, to combine. Every single part of the physical aspect of the artistic production has its psychological counterpart. If Louise is in a certain mood then she is unable to cut the wood, she’s not up to it; it’s too aggressive an act, impossible to carry out. This is important to know: the role of the body and how a sculpture’s nature depends on Louise’s mental state at the time, on how she feels.
MN: How did you come to understand the things that you’re telling me now?
JG: I observed them, and some of my observations have been confirmed. Some of them I know, because I have been at Louise’s side for a long time now.
MNM: Do you argue much?
LB: No, it’s impossible to argue with Jerry. He always has the last word. That’s why I like him.
MN: Louise, has our interview been very painful for you?
LB: No, because you asked good questions and there was no tension. Now Jerry’s going to show you some tapes so that you can add to my answers.
Notes 1. Christiane Meyer-Thoss, Louise Bourgeois (Ammann Verlag, Zurich, 1992), p. 139.↩ 2. A heartfelt thanks to Jerry Gorovoy, whose help made this interview possible.↩ 3. Christian Leigh, Rooms, Doors, Windows: Making Entrances & Exits (When Necessary). Louise Bourgeois’s Theatre of the Body, cited in “Balcon,” nos. 8-9 (1992), pp. 30-34.↩
The following works also merit consulation:
Donald Kuspit, An Interview with Louise Bourgeois, in Bourgeois (Vintage Books, New York, 1988). LB, Catalog of the show held at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Lyon in the summer of 1990. Of particular interest are the essays by Lucy R. Lippard, Robert Storr and Rosalind Krauss, in addition to the biography and rich bibliography. (New York City, March 1993)