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An artist who's free in her cage

MOCA's involving show plots Louise Bourgeois' progress.


Prison can be liberating. At least, so suggests the fascinating 60-year retrospective of paintings, drawings, installations and -- most compelling -- sculptures by New York artist Louise Bourgeois at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The incarceration of Bourgeois, now 96, has been psychic. Her famous personal story -- growing up after World War I in a comfortable French household with a governess who was, to her mother's and her siblings' agonized knowledge, also her father's mistress -- gave Bourgeois a deep reservoir of conflicted feelings about sex and the sexes, on which her work has steadily drawn. Rage and ridicule, fear and fantasy, sensuality and repulsiveness, determination and despair, power and fragility are just some of the discordant conditions that eddy and swirl through her productively untidy work.

MOCA's show is installed in a loose chronology, beginning after Bourgeois moved from Paris to New York in 1938 following marriage to art historian Robert Goldwater, whose field was the relationship between tribal arts and Modern painting and sculpture and whose prominence steadily grew. (He died in 1973.) The earliest works are several rather clumsy paintings from 1946-47 that show an odd amalgamation between a woman's body and a house.

The paintings are tall and skinny. Each one shows an imposing domicile grafted onto a woman's lower torso, with stairways, darkened windows and enigmatic protuberances. They might be clumsy, but they clearly articulate two primary aspects of Bourgeois' self-styled prison.

An artist left out

First, they are Surrealist. The paintings evoke sexuality and darkly emotional states of mind, a representational program that in postwar New York was considered hopelessly old-fashioned. Surrealism, a European movement of the previous quarter-century, was out of date for the progressive Americanism then being championed as the authentic avant-garde.

Second, they have domestic subject matter. It is underscored in the series' French title -- "Femme Maison" -- literally "woman home" or, colloquially, housewife. In postwar society, men returning from the battlefront edged Rosie the Riveter back into the kitchen; Bourgeois' domestic subject removed the paintings from a territory thought essential for major art, which was not private and feminine but public and masculine -- a world of dramatic action.

Bourgeois has talked about how the young, emerging New York art world of the late 1930s through the 1950s commonly assigned social roles that made things impossible for her as an artist. Women were often (though not exclusively) the founding museum trustees and the Modern art dealers, so they bought and sold the "important" artistic production of worldly men. That left her out.

Across the way from these paintings in MOCA's first gallery is a 1997 sculptural installation featuring her signature image, "Spider." A nearly 15-foot-tall steel arachnid straddles a circular steel-mesh cage; the spider has deposited her glass "eggs" into a basket poised high above a tatty, tapestry-covered chair. Enigmatic objects are suspended from the cage on wire or chain -- two bits of bone with the marrow gone; a glass perfume bottle; a locket and a pocket watch; a phallic paddle studded with stick-pin jewelry; and fragments of worn and abraded tapestry.

Autobiography drives Bourgeois' work. For example, her family worked in the tapestry repair business, reweaving by hand damaged textiles that picture lost worlds and embody ruined dreams. And her censorious father is perhaps implied by the paddle, with its cluster of stick-pins and overtones of punishment.

The spider-cage sculpture is as much a Surrealist femme maison as the paintings from three decades earlier. But its sophisticated forms, not to mention the sheer artistic ambition, are of an entirely different order. The spider is gorgeously crafted, an animated form resting lightly on the floor, its role as both fertile mother and weaver of webs simple to infer. And the cage over which the buoyant spider presides is part shelter and part prison, a place of comfortable refuge upholstered with worn familiarity as well as a decaying and inescapable trap.

How did Bourgeois get from the paintings to the sculpture? The show suggests a couple of avenues.

Around the same time that she made the paintings, she was making totems of painted wood. No doubt related to her husband's work in tribal art, these rudimentary sculptures, which she calls "Personages," have great appeal.

But they also seem conventional, as much a part of the larger postwar movement toward wiping the slate of Western art clean and starting from scratch as the work of countless artists -- Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Tobey and many more.

Well-timed hiatus

So Bourgeois stopped. She mostly gave up making art for the second half of the 1950s. The hiatus was a good idea, because art and the art world began to change dramatically in the 1960s.

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