In 1990 Bourgeois published an illustrated book titled the puritan, pairing a text she had written in 1947 with a new series of eight prints, all with handpainted gouache additions. The text of the puritan is an enigmatic parable of lost love set in New York City. Bourgeois described the ordered geometry of the images as a tool of objective understanding: “With the puritan I analyzed an episode forty years after it happened. I could see things from a distance … I put it on a grid.” The text may have biographical implications; Bourgeois had referred to her friend Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of The Museum of Modern Art, as a “puritan.”
Gallery label from 2013.
Bourgeois’s entire text for this volume appears below. The text was written in 1947 and the postscript was added in 1990.
Do you know the New York sky? You should, it is supposed to be known. It is outstanding. It is a serious thing. Can you remember the Paris sky? How unreliable, most of the time grey, often warm and damp, never quite perfect, indulging in clouds and shades; rain, breeze and sun sometimes managing to appear together. But the New York sky is blue, utterly blue. The light is white, a glorying white and the air is strong and it is healthy too. There is no foolishness about that sky. It is a beautiful thing. It is pure.
There was a street in New York and it was full of the New York sky. It spread over it like a blue aluminum sheet. At that particular place I know why that sky was so blue, so completely himself. Because right under him the most formidable building in the world was standing up. In that street, close to that sky and close to that building, there was a house. The sky, the building, and the house, knew each other and approved of each other.
This was not a living in structure. It was a working in one. There was efficiency, everyone looked clean, lots of type writing machines and type writing girls, but not the usual ones. These were earning a living with refined people and they knew it. You could see that in their postures and noises.
In this structure there was a man, there always is, so there was and he was very fine. He belonged to the place the way the place belonged to him. Everyone there was very fond of him and looked up to him. He accepted this because apart from being civilized he was kind. There was a definite well organized, successful and ambitiously satisfied feeling about the place.
The trouble came when one of the doors was left open and apparently someone came in. Maybe it was an oversight or a mistake but I doubt it because this was not in the style of that place, nor in the character of the man. We might assume the door was left open almost on purpose, as a half invitation to someone passing by to come in for fun.
Well she did, she came in, though she had no taste for fun. She saw him, she saw he was good and of course she loved him.
What happened next is that before they knew it something got between them. The wisdom of nations wants that nothing can keep apart people who love each other. Not even a million armed men packed around that house could have kept them together. There was still to try to help them, such things as a common friend, a sheet of paper, and the telephone, don’t forget. They saw each other sometimes too; and the eyes of someone you understand can tell you more than four Western Union telegrams.
But there it was. There was a snap, and there was silence. First an expecting silence, and then the silence of the completely dead.
I told that story to my neighbor who is a resourceful man, and he assured me that some men are afraid of soldiers around their house. That besides, telephones can be tapped and typewriters have ears. Even a sheet of paper frail as it is can be frightening. But I told my neighbor he was wrong because that man was afraid of nothing, that he was just, and because of this should have had nothing to fear.
Later on he died right in his factory of refinement. Everyone worth talking about cried and cried. Of course no one could see his soul, not even his wife. But they said that his body was dry and they think he was a puritan.
If you have a secret, you become afraid. You are paralyzed by your desires, and are in terror of the desires still to be uncovered. The demands of love are too great, and you withdraw.
Publication excerpt from Louise Bourgeois, the puritan, New York, Osiris.