As a small child, Louise Bourgeois used to mold white bread into a figure of her father, then slowly and deliberately cut off the arms and legs with a knife. She has called this her "first sculptural solution." A lifetime later, while she enjoys her greatest artistic recognition at the age of eighty-four, intense feelings rooted in her childhood in France still come bubbling to the surface to take form in her work. "Art is an exorcism," she says. "a tool for survival."
Bourgeois employs myriad materials and techniques—carved wood and marble, and cast latex, plaster, and bronze, often combined with an assemblage of found objects—to address very contemporary questions of gender and sexuality. Heavily autobiographical, the pieces she presented as the U.S. representative to the 1993 Venice Biennale, as well as the German art fair Documenta IX and other major exhibitions, betray an anxiety born of unresolved emotional issues. "My solution," Bourgeois explains, "is to make an effort to learn [about myself] every day." Tiny and energetic, she paces the shadowy recesses of her narrow Manhattan town house, sometimes stopping to sit across a small table from her visitor, as if interrogating her interviewer, and pounding the tabletop for emphasis as she talks about life. Her father Louis Bourgeois did much to provoke his children’s fierce ambivalence. He installed his mistress, Sadie, In the house as little Louise's English tutor and she lived there for ten years. He also would disappear in the family Chrysler for days or weeks at a time, going as far as Spain, Italy, and Switzerland, without a word to his family or to anyone else as to where he would be or when he would return. "Once, his mother died while he was roaming around Spain," Bourgeois recollects, "and we had no way of getting in touch with him."
Louise Bourgeois’s mother, strong and hardworking, was in charge of repairing the antique tapestries her husband bought on his travels and then sold to American tycoons. She bore his absences and infidelities with equanimity. "She did not fear being abandoned at all," Bourgeois says. "She was not threatened, but it affected me. Ever since, I have been subject to the fear, the trauma of abandonment."
Bourgeois's father also collected garden sculptures of the 17th and 18th centuries. "My parents were practical people and didn't want their home cluttered up with sculpture," she explains, "and there was some land around our house. So when my father went on the road he would put into the rumble seat of his Chrysler some sculpture that he bought along with the tapestries." These garden pieces, of lead or terra cotta, portrayed moral characters from antiquity. "He betrayed his wife every time he had a chance," Bourgeois says with fresh bitterness, "and came back with an apology." It was always a sculpture in the form of someone like Penelope, Odysses's dutiful wife. Hercules, too, was one of his heroes, and his attitude toward my mother was that he was her Hercules, ready to defend her. Absurd! He was a skirt-chaser, and all he could talk about was the virtue of the wife. Eventually, the garden was full of sculpture. It was a strange way of appreciating her."
Traditionally Hercules carried a massue, a club or bludgeon. It is an image that appears more than once in Bourgeois's early history. During World War I the Bourgeois children were sent to live in Aubusson, in a place directly across the road from the slaughterhouse. "It was a horror story," she says. "We would see the cattle come in and we were told that they were killed with a massue. We learned what a violent world it is."
Bourgeois goes over to a folder and takes out some small gouache-and-watercolour images she has painted on bright red envelopes. She lays them out carefully on the table. "Yesterday," she confides with a candor more characteristically American than French, "Jerry [Gorovoy, her assistant] went away, my son went back to New Mexico, and I felt abandoned-just as I had as a child. It's a traumatic thing that stays with you your whole life. But when I feel that way I am not objectionable. I do not scream and yell. So how do I defend myself against this horrible emotion? I spent the whole evening representing visually what I was feeling, namely that someone had hit me over the head and left me unconscious. I represented the club that hits you."
Sitting at the table, Bourgeois picks up a tiny porcelain tiger. "I also learn, through the love of material, the study of its limits. The limits of porcelain" she throws the little tiger against the tabletop so hard it bounces off and lands on the floor—"is that you cannot count on it. If I can beat you, mold you, break you, put you together, glue you, tear you apart, and you're still there, that is what I want. I want this of friendship, also."
"But," her visitor asks, "can you also accept being torn apart by others?"
"Not at all!" Bourgeois is emphatic. "But the limits of materials can be thought of as a metaphor for human relations. Like Jerry, for instance. He's a tempered-steel person. It's fantastic what he can take."
And, her visitor inquires, what became other father's garden sculptures?
"Ah," Bourgeois says, "the fate of sculpture is very interesting. As art they had little worth. They sat in the garden and no one paid attention to them. But when the war was declared, lead suddenly became valuable. The neighbours stole the lead sculptures to sell to the government, which melted them down to make bullets. However the terra cotta ones could be there to this day. So the difference that material makes became important to me. And the difference between materials allows me to rediscover traumatic experiences. Every day you have to abandon the past or accept it. If you cannot accept it, you become a sculptor."