Review #228: Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and The Tangerine
Directors: Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach
Cast: Louise Bourgeois, Gerry Gorovoy, Deborah Wye
When French-born American artist Louise Bourgeois died after a heart attack in New York City on June 1st, obituary writers were clearly ready. After all, she was 98 years old. (Born on Christmas in Paris in 1911, Bourgeois had her first solo show – twelve paintings – in 1945.) Even so, her last exhibition – Fabric Works, sculptures of her signature spiders woven from ribbons – opened four days later (last Friday) in the Italian city of Venice at the Fondazione Vedova. Last summer Bourgeois was also inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame in nearby Seneca Falls (along with noted local feminist attorney Karen DeCrow), and in 2009 she also enjoyed a retrospective at the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC.
Bourgeois’ death might now hasten Netflix to stop dawdling and add the wonderful documentary about her by filmmaker Marion Cajori and art historian Amei Wallach, which has been out on DVD for the past year. Cajori, who died in 2006 before the film’s completion, also made well-respected films about the artists Joan Mitchell and Chuck Close. Wallach was able to finish the film in time to premiere in New York City in June 2008, two days before the opening of a full-career retrospective of Bourgeois’ work at the Guggenheim.
This film was made over fourteen years, assembled from some 190 interviews, vintage footage and photographs, and more recent interviews with Bourgeois’ long-time assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, and her middle son, Jean-Louis. There are also key curators and commentators, all of whom have themselves published work on Bourgeois, as has Gorovoy himself. Carlotta Kotik was curator of the US Pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale, where Bourgeois was the first woman to represent to US with her room – she called them “cells” – housing the arresting Arch of Hysteria sculpture, a woman's legs and torso bent backward in spasm. Writer and curator Robert Storr, former dean of the Yale School of Art, knew Bourgeois well before her marriage to the American art historian Robert Goldwater (who pioneered our understanding of primitive art, took Bourgeois out of war-time France and introduced her to the Manhattan art scene on the 1940s that included Peggy Guggenheim, exiled French Surrealists whom she did not like and later, Abstract Expressionists, whom she did, and dealers such as Leo Castelli, himself now the subject of a new biography). Deborah Wye met Bourgeois in 1976 and, as chief curator of prints at MoMA New York, engineered the first major retrospective by a woman - Bourgeois - at MoMA; this was in 1982, when Bourgeois was 71 years old. Frances Morris was curator at the Tate Modern in London when, for its inaugural exhibition at the turn of the Millennium, that museum unveiled Bourgeois’ massive, mirror-hung three-tower installation, I Do/I Und0/I Redo.
I Do/I Undo/I Redo in fact serves to title each of the three chapters of the film, and it’s especially satisfying, after this has been used to structure the story, that the film winds up with a detailed section that documents the installation and opening of that work at the Tate Modern. This illustrates a certain trust the filmmakers have in their audience, who may or may not be familiar with this installation or the artist herself - chronicler of the body's vulnerability, memory, the family's abandonment and reconciliation, equally at home in the representational and the abstract - and an approach to making a film about an artist that gets on with its exploration without too pedestrian a recitation of the facts and figures. The film has often been criticized for assuming too great a knowledge of Bourgeois’ life and work on the part of the viewer and, particularly by Eleanor Baden of the Feminist Review, for including far too little on Bourgeois’ views on feminism, marriage and motherhood (she and Goldwater had three sons).
On the contrary, I found the balance just right. There is plenty here about her views on all these issues – albeit through the art itself rather than through literal pronouncements – if one cares to pay attention. The film’s title refers to Bourgeois’ signature giant spider sculptures, which she called her Maman or mother pieces (the family business was embroidery and tapestry restoration and her mother was a master weaver); to her father’s live-in mistress Sadie, ostensibly the governess; and to the humiliating, sexually-charged Sunday dinner game her father played in front of guests involving the skin of a tangerine. All have their explanations in due time.
And all exemplify the dilemna of balancing biography with aesthetic standards of judgement. Both Robert Storr and Jerry Gorovoy discuss, for example, the first time that “the mistress story really came out,” in an exhibition that included old family photos, and Bourgeois’ subsequent regret at revealing this bit of biography. Says Gorovoy in the film, “She decided telling the story of the mistress was a mistake, because people used that to interpret the work. And that’s crazy. The work is much more complex than that.”
Set this next to Bourgeois’ own resonant, multi-layered observations about having met Constantin Brancusi, observing that when he became very old and could not longer lift enormous, heavy pieces of wood, “this was his changing time” as an artist. There’s a voice-over of Bourgeois that plays over old footage of the scaffolding needed for the erection of Brancusi’s iconic 1937 sculpture Endless Column, in which she wonders if he knew that the pillar is a mother image and that “when you’re angry at the mother you cut it in pieces.” Or compare it to Bourgeois’ own recollection of how come she couldn’t stand most of the exiled French Surrealist “father figures.”
Feminists want to claim Bourgeois. In fact in 1992 they protested that the Guggenheim Soho’s planned inaugural exhibition was “four white boys” and got Bourgeois added in a show re-titled From Brancusi to Bourgeois. There’s a 2007 clip of a couple of the Guerilla Gurlz recalling that and proclaiming, “She’s our icon, whether she likes it or not!”
Bourgeois didn't like it, but - gun-shy of the literal - she may have resisted any declared allegiance as too constricting. Wye tells the story that even Bourgeois' dealer wasn't certain how much work she had and how Bourgeois showed Wye a cellar-full of sculptures but abruptly shut the light off with the remark, "I've showed you too much."
Certainly Bourgeois experienced a resurgence of work and new attention after her husband died in 1973 and she returned to making art (buying a studio in Brooklyn in 1980 allowed the larger work to unfold) that also coincided with convergence of a number of trends in the 70s and 80s. Both Gorovoy and Wye speak incisively about this time – the waning of formalist standards in the judgment of art and the rise of protest art, women’s consciousness, and the opening up of what art could be – and how it supported Bourgeois’ own later flowering.
Cranky and difficult and sometimes self-destructive – her intimates are clear she was challenging – Bourgeois yet consistently understood that a too-literal correlation of her work with her biography would prove reductive. The filmmakers understand that too – magnificently.
A shorter version of this review appeared in the June 10, 2010 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle on page 12. “Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine” is readily and reasonably available online at Amazon.com and other sites, but you can encourage Netflix by adding it to your “Save” queue. You can also watch online PBS’ “Art 21” segment on Identity (from 2001), which features Bourgeois and four other artists.