Life’s lessons

Times Staff Writer

IF the art world has a grande dame, she must be Louise Bourgeois. Revered by her peers and decorated with honors, the French-born American artist is widely regarded as an independent creative force whose work can be psychologically disturbing, sexually loaded and wickedly funny. Best-known for sculptures of giant spiders, caged figures, women with extra breasts and double-headed penises, she also makes drawings and paintings that probe the depths of love, fear and longing.

Bourgeois’ work is everywhere. She represented the United States at the 1993 Venice Biennale. Her 30-foot-tall “Spider” reigned over the Tate Modern’s cavernous Turbine Hall in London at its opening in 2000. She was the first living American artist to have an exhibition at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2002. Phoenix commissioned her to produce “Art Is a Guaranty of Sanity,” an enormous pivoting mirror, for its convention center in 2004. The Seattle Art Museum recently unveiled “Father & Son,” a fountain in its new sculpture park.

In Los Angeles, Bourgeois has a gallery of her own in “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” a sprawling exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art through July 16. A major retrospective exhibition of her work will open this fall at the Tate Modern, travel to the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and conclude at L.A.'s MOCA, beginning in October 2008.

Bourgeois’ life story is well known too. Born in Paris is 1911, she grew up in a middle-class family that operated a tapestry restoration firm. She was well provided for, but her father employed his mistress as the children’s live-in English tutor -- a traumatic situation that appears to have influenced her artwork and shaped her feminist sensibility.


She became involved in art in Paris, where she studied with prominent artists, including painter Fernand Leger. In 1938, she married American art historian Robert Goldwater and moved to New York. Bourgeois began to establish herself as an artist in the 1940s, while raising her family, and she participated in feminist activities in the 1960s. But she was little known beyond New York contemporary art circles until 1982, when the Museum of Modern Art presented a comprehensive retrospective. Since then, her work has been exhibited in hundreds of venues worldwide.

At 95, Bourgeois herself is not to be seen. Still living in New York and making art every single day, she has retreated from the scene of museums, galleries and interviews. But a new book, “Louise Bourgeois” by Marie-Laure Bernadac, published by Flammarion in Paris, brought a rare opportunity to contact the artist -- in cyberspace. An offer to submit questions to her by e-mail was an offer not to be refused. Adhering to a deadline was out of the question, but she would respond on her own schedule. Questions were sent. Answers arrived four weeks later.

When I ask young female artists to tell me whose work has inspired them, they almost always mention you. Who are the artists, writers and other creative people whose work has been important to you?

The most important teacher in my life was my mother. I also learned a little something from all my teachers, especially Leger. I like the writings of Camus, Colette, Sagan and Sartre. I like portraiture, especially the works of Bacon, Bonnard, Kokoschka, Messerschmitt and Soutine.


Your work is often interpreted in terms of its biographical, psychological and erotic content. Is that how you see it?

My work is a form of psychoanalysis. It is a way of coming to grips with my anxiety and fears. It is an attempt to be a better person.

The author of the new Flammarion book “Louise Bourgeois” states that your work “represents an alternation between construction and destruction, a struggle against depression, fear, and the anguish of no longer being loved; the ambivalence of maternal feelings.” Is that an accurate assessment?

There is a lot of ambivalence in the work. There are many hanging pieces, which signify a fragile state. There are pieces that oscillate and rock, which also convey fragility. We all have pink days and blue days. I am trying to seek a balance between the extremes that I feel. I want to be reasonable.


Is your work fundamentally based on your childhood memories and life experiences?

My work is based on today: how I feel when I wake up in the morning, how I react to the next person I meet. The relationship to my childhood in my work is connected to how the problems that I am facing today can be traced back to the past. Our past helps us understand the present. I have no interest in nostalgia. I’m a very practical person.

Do world events, wars and social struggles also fuel your work, or is your inspiration of a more personal nature?

I think many things that are going on in the world today feed into the work, but many times unconsciously. My work is not an illustration of anything but rather it expresses an emotional state, good or bad.


Does the form of your work grow out of the content, or do they evolve simultaneously?

The form, the content and the material are entwined. They are inseparable from what I want to say.

You have used a wide array of materials in your work. How do you choose them?

Each material offers different possibilities of expression. It is like playing a piano in different keys. I have no interest in materials as such, and I don’t privilege one over the other.


I have read that you consider yourself a feminist, but that you do not think there is a feminist aesthetic. Is that true?

My work deals with problems that are pre-gender. For example, jealousy is not male or female. I do not believe that there is a feminist aesthetic.

In feminist circles, it is often said that “the personal is political.” Is that statement relevant to your work?

The only obligation we have is to express what we feel to the best of our ability. It must be true and it must be authentic.


Some of your work from the 1970s is represented in “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. What are your memories of that period, and what did your involvement in the feminist movement mean to you?

I was lucky to have a mother who was a feminist. I married a feminist and I raised my sons as feminists. I believe in the feminist ideal of equality. I believe women should have equal opportunity and rights. My work does make fun of the macho man, whether it was my father or Freud. The feminists embrace me and are important to me.

The introductory text to the new book says a long period of neglect enabled you to accomplish your artistic task, free from constraints of fashion, success and the market. Do you agree?

I believe that not being picked up by the market was a blessing in disguise. It allowed me to work undisturbed, at my own pace and in my own way. I think there is a lot of pressure on young artists today.


Since you were belatedly “discovered” by the art world, has your success been a burden or a boon, or both?

I am glad when people respond to the work. But this has nothing to do with my motivation and need to work. The only thing that interests me is the piece I am working on now.

In Los Angeles, many people are looking forward to the retrospective of your work at MOCA. Did you work closely with the curators who selected pieces for that exhibition? Are you interested in looking back, or just moving ahead?

I do not get that involved in exhibitions of my work. Once a piece is done I tend not to look back. I believe when people see the work that I have produced over a long period of time they will see the consistency of what I want to say.


How do you want to be remembered in art history books?

I’m not that interested in art history. I was married to an art historian and had enough of it. Art history is one thing and being an artist is another. I know I’m part of history, just a tiny stone in a very big wall.