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In Minds Of: Louise Bourgeois

Conversation with Ralph Rugoff about Louise Bourgeois’s legacy.


Image Courtesy of The Easton Foundation

Louise Bourgeois in her home on 20th Street in New York City, 2003. Photo: Pouran Esrafily.

Ralph Rugoff, director of Hayward Gallery, leads us on an insightful exploration of Louise Bourgeois’s profound artistic legacy and her intricate creative process. Prior to the much-anticipated exhibition at Hayward Gallery [in 2022], this interview unveils Rugoff’s deep understanding of Bourgeois’s life, relationships, and influential forces that shaped her visionary oeuvre. 

The Good Mother, 2003. Photo: Christopher Burke.

PLUS: I want to discuss two separate but related periods of Louise Bourgeois’s life — her early life encountering tapestry and the artworks she has produced during the last decade of her career.

Ralph Rugoff: Louise Bourgeois grew up in a family of tapestry restorers, and her mother supervised a workshop of people who would repair old tapestries. As a child, Bourgeois was brought in to help, and her job was to draw in missing elements of the tapestry. So, if a figure was missing a foot, she would draw it, which the weavers would then reproduce. It’s interesting because her later work is filled with free-floating limbs or bodies without parts. 


P: So collecting these fabrics acted as her collective memories.

RR: It suggests some kind of recuperation, but also a remnant part of something leftover from an object that’s no longer a whole piece. For her, it was important that each item of clothing belonged to herself or to somebody she knew. She looked at these as pages of a diary about parts of her life, places she’d been, people she knew. 


P: In 1938, she moved to New York, started a family of her own, and was exposed to different environments. Can you walk through how this influenced her practice? 

RR: Interestingly enough, after she moved out of the family home and rented her own apartment, it was in the same building as the gallery run by the Surrealists. She also studied with Fernand Léger, and went on a trip to Moscow, in part because of her interest in Constructivist art. So, she already knew people in the art world. When she came to New York, there was an ex-patriot community of French artists she also got to know, including several Surrealists and Marcel Duchamp. 

When she had her first show of sculpture in New York, she exhibited sculptures made of pieces of wood called the Personages. She said they reflected the people she left behind in Paris and also the vertical architecture of New York. This idea of extreme verticality inspired her in a number of ways and perhaps she also related this to the upright posture of human beings.


P: The Spider are considered the most well-known part of her oeuvre. This work, which was an ode to her mother, might seem grotesque at first glance but conveys an almost poignant vulnerability and enmeshes conjuring emotion.

RR: I believe Bourgeois picked up on the idea of a spider because it creates its home out of its own body. She noted that if one bumps into a spider’s web, the spider won’t abandon it but will instead set about fixing it. So she associated spiders with the act of repairing as well. 

For Bourgeois, who generally looked at relationships in ways that underscored their ambivalent character and the uncertain nature of sexuality and maternity,  the spider could represent a mother who was overpowering and dominant, as well as protective. Many of the Spider sculptures are a monstrous size for a real spider. But then their legs are so spindly and flimsy-looking that the sculpture looks entirely precarious. This balance between opposing values is characteristic of her work, which often creates ambiguity by setting up these tensions between two seemingly incompatible sides of something. It’s what makes her work psychologically rich – she never saw things in simple terms. 


P: And the idea of spider’s spinneret eventually relates to her later textile works as the artist directly quotes, “I’ve always had a fascination with the needle, the magic power of the needle. The needle is used to repair the damage. It’s a claim to forgiveness.”

RR: It wasn’t until she was in her 80s that she began creating a series of figurative fabric sculptures.  In a few of these works, the artist fashioned figures that are barely recognizable anatomically.  Some of the bodies are sewn together with a rough crude stitch that calls to mind something that you might see in an autopsy room. I think she wanted it to convey a sense of the psychic tension in the body – and the notion that we are composed of various parts that are only loosely held together.  It’s not just about repairing; it’s about suggesting the possibility of repairing and wholeness, but also telling the opposite – pointing to internal tensions that could potentially blow everything apart. I find it very interesting that the needle’s work can be both a sign of repair but also of a wound that, in a way, could never be completely repaired.

Reunion, 2021. © Claudette Johnson. Image courtesy the artist and Hollybush Gardens, London. Photo: Andy Keate.
Standing Figure with African Masks, 2018. © Claudette Johnson. Image courtesy the artist and Hollybush Gardens, London. Photo: Andy Keate.

P:  It’s also intriguing how she interchanges from cast in bronze to the fabric. 

RR: It is a fascinating change because there is a correlation between fabric and skin. Fabric is soft, and vulnerable. We say clothing is a second skin. It’s not going to last forever like a piece of aluminum or bronze, so it has a sense of fragility to it. These qualities come out in some of the fabric works more pronouncedly.

At a certain point, she decided to hire a professional seamstress because she wanted some works to feature a more ‘professional’ or seamless fabrication. These, however, are just as visceral: in a series of sculptures that features couples locked in the missionary position, Bourgeois conveyed a strong sense of a suffocating embrace. Some of the bodies in these works also wear prosthetic devices. For Bourgeois, the prosthetic was a symbol not of a physical injury but of a psychic wound. She also saw it in a positive light as something that enabled somebody to survive whatever psychological injury they’d suffered. So she saw her artistic practice as her own prosthetic device. 


P: Throughout her life, the ‘mother’ figure has changed, oscillating back and forth in time, as she once remarked, “I miss my mother. I am a mother. I am looking for a mother.”

RR: In general, apart from the Virgin birth, art about motherhood has not received a huge amount of attention in art history. And Bourgeois’s work occupies an extraordinary place in that history.  For instance, Lady in Waiting, (2003) features a small cell-like space where a tiny spider with a body made of tapestry and steel legs sits on a chair covered with the same type of tapestry. It conveys a sense of someone who’s in a perpetual state of waiting. To some extent, Bourgeois saw this as a role of a mother, having to be patient as a caretaker, but also being pushed out of the limelight in the patriarchal system that characterized family life in her time.


P:  I am curious to know what role the scale played in her practice.

RR: Bourgeois didn’t want her smaller figurative sculptures to be considered doll or puppet-like, but their small scale definitely makes these works feel very intimate. You don’t relate to them physically so much because these objects don’t confront your space in a room as a large sculpture does. But you connect with them more by projecting yourself down to the size of the work.


P:  I want to discuss the show Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child at Hayward Gallery, the artist’s first major retrospective to focus exclusively on her work using fabrics and textiles. 

RR:  This exhibition will demonstrate a wide variety of approaches that she used to work with textiles, from working with clothing directly to transforming clothes and household linens into other types of objects to creating fairly abstract sculptures. It will also include some of her Cell installations, which have a more theatrical quality, as well as a range of figurative sculptures that are shown in many different ways, including several that hang from the ceiling. There will also be a selection of her fabric books and her very striking and dynamic drawings with fabrics. 

Overall, the drawings are abstract, yet they also have this domestic reference to clothing and fabric, which gives them a different quality from typical formal abstraction. All in all, I can’t think of a later period of another artist that was more fertile and full of discovery than this astonishing period of Louise Bourgeois when she was in her 80s and 90s. And, of course, she was constantly revisiting themes and motifs from her previous work. But she gave it a very different twist at the end. 


P: Can you speak more about the title “The Woven Child”?

RR: It’s a title she used for several different works, and we have two of them in the exhibition. One’s a small sculpture of a kind of embryonic figure in a sack. The other is a book of fabric drawings. Many people revisit their childhoods late in their life; they spend more time thinking about their early years, and Bourgeois’ fabric works also comprised a way of revisiting and reimagining concerns from her early years.  So the title of these works seemed apt as a title for the whole exhibition.  

Spider, 1997. Photo: Maximilian Geuter.

P: The concept of relationship is fundamental in her work. Throughout her life, these relationships influenced one another and created new meanings.

RR: Let me read a quote by Bourgeois that I singled out, which might end up on the gallery wall for the exhibition. She says, “The relation of one person to their surroundings is a continuing preoccupation. It can be casual or close, simple or involved, or involve subtle or blunt. It can be painful or pleasant. Most of all it can be real or imaginary. This is the soil from which all my work grows.” She’s saying her work is precisely about what you’re talking about—our relationships with others in the world around us. And the reason why she strikes a chord with so many people is that this is something we all have in common. She found forms of triggering responses that make you feel things in a very impactful way. Bourgeois touches many subjects that most people don’t generally want to bring to light, subjects which our culture is actively trying not to pay attention to – and it fashions a hugely enriching conversation around these concerns.


P: We can all agree that there are numerous reasons why her practice has been celebrated by many, and curious to know what changes you think Louise Bourgeois has left behind in the art industry. 

RR: It’s always hard to say because no artist is working in isolation. I believe the complex ambiguity of her work invites people to connect with it. Ultimately, I think the work itself is very open-ended and can serve each viewer as an incredible machine for generating metaphors about our experience of other people, our bodies, and our emotions. There is no other artist who I can think of with a similar ability to so powerfully convey intertwining visceral and psychological experiences simultaneously. 


P: I cannot agree with you more. 

RR: [laughs] I am glad to hear that.

This story is from Issue Four.