Born in Paris in 1911, Louise Bourgeois was raised by parents who ran a tapestry restoration business. A gifted student, she also helped out in the workshop by drawing missing elements in the scenes depicted on the tapestries. During this time, her father carried on an affair with Sadie Gordon Richmond, the English tutor who lived in the family house. This deeply troubling—and ultimately defining—betrayal remained a vivid memory for Bourgeois for the rest of her life. Later, she would study mathematics before eventually turning to art. She met Robert Goldwater, an American art historian, in Paris and they married and moved to New York in 1938. The couple raised three sons.
Early on, Bourgeois focused on painting and printmaking, turning to sculpture only in the later 1940s. However, by the 1950s and early 1960s, there are gaps in her production as she became immersed in psychoanalysis. Then, in 1964, for an exhibition after a long hiatus, Bourgeois presented strange, organically shaped plaster sculptures that contrasted dramatically with the totemic wood pieces she had exhibited earlier. But alternating between forms, materials, and scale, and veering between figuration and abstraction became a basic part of Bourgeois’s vision, even while she continually probed the same themes: loneliness, jealousy, anger, and fear.
Bourgeois’s idiosyncratic approach found few champions in the years when formal issues dominated art world thinking. But by the 1970s and 1980s, the focus had shifted to the examination of various kinds of imagery and content. In 1982, at 70 years old, Bourgeois finally took center stage with a retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art. After that, she was filled with new confidence and forged ahead, creating monumental spiders, eerie room-sized “Cells,” evocative figures often hanging from wires, and a range of fabric works fashioned from her old clothes. All the while she constantly made drawings on paper, day and night, and also returned to printmaking. Art was her tool for coping; it was an exorcism. As she put it, “Art is a guarantee of sanity.” Bourgeois died in New York in 2010, at the age of 98.
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