The woven-fabric work I Am Afraid (2009) opens and closes this question-mark-shaped show. Silver, silken, and mounted on a stretcher, the work is pillow-like but attached to the wall, too thin to provide any sort of carnal comfort, like a perversion of a domestic object. It is inscribed with the words “YES, SOMETHING IS MISSING AND ALWAYS WILL BE MISSING.” At the same time, a nearby text, from the artist’s journal and dating to more than fifty years before, reads, “I do not have to live in an empty/ world of vacuum (Marie Bonaparte),” referencing the prominent psychoanalyst and student of Freud. “I can create/ my own artist world of omnipotence + fantasy.”
Indeed, the singular artist Louise Bourgeois was expert at plumbing her own voids—that which was perceived to be missing or empty in her own life—generating material which she would transmute into an artwork or which would spill onto the page as raw psychoanalytic matter. Recently uncovered at the artist’s home, these writings were produced during three decades of psychoanalysis. Sometimes they elucidated an artwork; other times they served as diary, illuminated an emotion, or illustrated a dream. “Freud’s Daughter,” guest curated by Philip Larratt-Smith at the Jewish Museum, probes Bourgeois’s unresolved relationship to Freudian psychoanalysis across seven decades of artworks and writing.
A key pillar of Freudian psychoanalysis is the Oedipus Complex, which describes a child’s feelings of erotic adulation for the parent of the opposite sex and an antipathy or rivalry with that of the same gender. Bourgeois’s mother, Josephine Fauriaux, a warm and pragmatic woman who ran the family’s tapestry restoration business, fell ill when Bourgeois was a small child, in 1917. The young Bourgeois nursed her, in a role reversal of the typical mother-child relationship, and made a private pact: should her mother live, she would forsake sex. Fauriaux died in 1932. “The/ mother is very tall corseted formidable/ but nothing unpleasant ever/ occurred,” Bourgeois wrote, dreaming of a family.
You know this woman that you call your
mother — she really is “Death” her
body is like a wicker basket
underneath her dress
Slate gray and low to the ground, with a thick rectangular base below a smaller block, Ventouse (Cupping Jar) (1990) is like a wide and wordless tombstone, flecked like the flint of a primitive blade. Embedded in the surface of the top are a number of glass bulbs which radiate a subtle and eerie iridescence, like a luminescent deep-sea creature. Bourgeois treated her mother with the same cupping jars, pressing them into her skin to alleviate back pain. The work is both cenotaph and synecdoche for the artist’s mother.
While her mother was ill, Bourgeois’s father carried on a decade-long affair with the artist’s English tutor, who was only six years older than her. In the aftermath of that betrayal, Bourgeois’s feelings oscillated between an infernal hatred of the man who “made [her] unfit for married or professional life,” as she writes in a 1958 snippet, and an adolescent adoration which verges on lust. Destruction of the Father (1974) showcases both impulses. The centerpiece of a lifted platform is strewn with bones, as if in the aftermath of a ritualistic act of cannibalism. It is surrounded by bulbous forms like budding tumors or breasts, which might act as witness, usurper, or undertaker, all lit by a hellish red light. The artist’s very first installation piece, it would presage the centerpiece of this exhibition, the massive Passage Dangereux (Dangerous Passage) (1997). The work is a harrowing parable of psychosexual growth: a claustrophobic cage with six separate enclosures off a central passage littered with mirrors which both illuminate unseen angles and also disorient the viewer. From one end of the passage, where Bourgeois’s signature pupae-like forms sit clumsily atop a chair and hang from the ceiling like hapless infants, one progresses to a child-sized hanging rocking chair which is suspended before a threadbare tapestry, recalling her family trade. At the far end of the passage, an assortment of chairs (including an electric chair) assemble like a stadium or a jury around the nucleus and culmination of the work: a rigid, cold, and unloving coupling of metal figures atop a wood bench.
Considering the number of large-scale works and the nearly unbearable abundance of psychological pain on view, the quieter pieces of Bourgeois’s wide and varied work could easily go unexplored. But the work of psychoanalysis, on top of exorcising the residual demons of early familial trauma, is also introspective, intimate, and undertaken in pursuit of self-betterment. Conscious and Unconscious (2008)[pictured], a glass-and-wood vitrine made two years before the artist died, houses two abstract figures. On the right, a stack of soft and rounded knit shapes grows steadily wider as it builds from the base, symbolizing rational order and conscious building. The silhouette is inverted on the other side—from a pale blue teardrop shape, five small armatures spin off, each holding a spool of thread which, in turn, ends with a needle that pierces the central form. Suffering, martyrdom, and motherhood are to be read in the work, and indeed, the tapestry-making and -mending Bourgeois family numbered five: the sick mother, the unfaithful father, and two siblings. But so did the family she herself began: she and her husband raised three children. “Pull yourself together,” she tells herself sternly in a piece of writing from 1958, imagining herself as a kind of tapestry, mid-making. "Do not try several things/ just so that one will pull you away from the/ one before – Be modest and tight knitted/ Always go back to the work you have on hand –/ Perfect and revisit again.”
—Lisa Yin Zhang
Louise Bourgeois, Conscious and Unconscious, 2008. Fabric, rubber, thread, and stainless steel. Collection The Easton Foundation © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Photo: Christopher Burke
Insert: Louise Bourgeois, Loose sheet of writing, c. 1961.Handwritten in pencil on ruled paper. (LB-0019). © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY