Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Louise Bourgeois

June 1, 2010 - 6:39pm -- Carol Diehl
Photo: Christian Coigny for Vitra, circa 1995

Today the New York Times published an article claiming that happiness comes with age. Researchers, apparently, are confounded as to why this might be, but anyone who is older than they were yesterday knows that it’s because with experience we learn to appreciate the present, and that nursing old wounds—or new ones—doesn’t serve us. (What they failed to consider, however, is that those who are content may live longer.)

Interesting that this article should be published on the same day as the obituary of someone for whom this was famously not true: Louise Bourgeois who, in her long lifetime, came to her art through replaying the traumas of her early life, and for whom feelings of helplessness and abandonment were just as vivid in her 80s as in childhood. Maybe more so, for all we know.

I first met Bourgeois in the mid-1990s, when I was producing celebrity ads (some of the first ever), a print campaign that ran only in Europe, for the high-end furniture company, Vitra. The celebs ran to the intellectual, and part of my job was to get the famous people to sit in the famous chairs—Martin Scorsese in an Eames chair, Jean Baudrillard (my biggest coup—Baudrillard in an ad!) in a Citterio chair. When we came to her home to photograph Bourgeois in a chair designed by Philippe Starck, she could not have been more gracious, and while the photographer, Christian Coigny, was setting up, she inquired about my painting and introduced me to the writing of Edward T. Hall, whose books came to have an enormous influence on my thinking.

Emboldened by this warm visit, I called to ask if I could interview her for a story in Art & Antiques, and Bourgeois agreed. However this time, she was totally prickly—trying, while I sat with my tape recorder running, every possible gambit to get rid of me (I was later to learn just how much she hated interviews). Finally she said, “I know how we should do this. There’s a book about me that’s all quotes. Go get that book, make a list of the quotes that interest you, come back and we’ll work from there.”

“Great,” I said, pulling the list from my backpack, because that was precisely how I’d prepared, “Shall we begin?”

I never saw Bourgeois nonplussed again, but from that moment we were friends and she was completely cooperative—in fact I could say we co-wrote the article, one of my favorites ever. She gave me complete freedom to shape it, but made many suggestions, all of which were on target, and enthusiastically participated in honing the smallest details.

After that we spent time together and I helped her with a couple of projects, but had to pull away when my time began to look like more hers than mine. She taught me a lot, however, much of it about how to stand up for myself as a female artist. Around that time I also wrote an article for Art & Antiques about my artist great-grandmother, and when I called to check what they’d written in the blurb about me for the contributor’s page, was horrified to find that it read, “Diehl has recently received a grant to do some painting of her own. Will it be in the style of her great-grandmother?” The twenty-something assistant who’d written it didn’t grasp the problem, but pulled it when I told her they couldn’t run the article if it stood (there was no blurb for me in that issue).

That evening I attended the premiere of a film about Bourgeois (which began with her running away from the filmmaker and hiding) and at dinner told her my story. When I said that she’d taught me to have that kind of courage, Bourgeois started pounding the table with her fist saying, “It’s not about promotion—it’s about defending our art! We must defend our art!”

Thank you, Louise.


Ha! Thanks, Joanne. Actually a few years ago I did write a memoir, hidden away in my computer somewhere, 90 pages on my first 30 or so years. People who read it liked it.

But while I've had, and continue to have, a very interesting life, instead of recording fascinating conversations with fascinating people, my journals teem with relationship angst. Boring!

You are so lucky to have met LB. She has always been my imaginary friend. Now as I age, I often thing of LB and model my "no nonsense" attitude after her.
Thank you for this story. It reassures me that my intuitions have been correct. LB was my kind of woman. I wish to aspire to the level of her character.

Years ago, in the mid-nineties, I recall seeing the Baudrillard chair ad but lost the publication. For years I have told friends that Baudrillard was photographed in a Vitra chair but alas never had the image to prove it. Do you know where I might find a digital image of the picture? Or at least where the ad was carried? Thanks in advance!

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