Biography

(1911-2010)

Bourgeois was an American sculpture, painter, and print maker, although she spent her early years in France.  Born in Paris on Christmas day in 1911, Bourgeois spent a tumultuous childhood in her parents’ textile workshop and observed her father’s philandering – a traumatic experience that emerges unconsciously throughout her entire body of work, and is an influence to which Bourgeois acknowledges in her many interviews and writings.

Bourgeois began studies at the Sorbonne at the age of 18 and received a degree in mathematics in 1932.  In 1938, she met and married the American art historian, critic, and curator Robert Goldwater.  She moved to New York City with Goldwater and began classes at the Art Students League, where her studies mainly concentrated on painting.  Goldwater and connections through the Art Students League was her introduction to the New York Art world.  Bourgeois was included in the Brooklyn Museum’s 1939 Print Exhibition, and she worked alongside other expatriates Joan Miró and Andre Masson, among others.  She exhibited with the Abstract Expressionists, but was never a part of their group.  Like them, she drew from her unconscious, especially from episodes from her turbulent childhood, but instead of large, gestural works, she created symbolic objects.

Despite some early shows, Bourgeois did not gain recognition until very late in life.  In 1982, when she was in her 70s, MoMA organized a retrospective of her work; the catalog for this show contained the now iconic Mapplethorpe photograph of her holding Fillette.  This show brought Bourgeois the critical acclaim that had eluded her for the many years in which she was “known to the New York glitterati merely as the charming French lady who appeared at private views on the arm of her American husband.” (1)  This show launched Bourgeois’ career.  She represented the United States at the Venice Biennale.

 

She had a second retrospective at the Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2007, which then travelled to New York, Los Angeles, and Washington DC the following year.  The Museo Nacional Centro de Art/Reina Sofia in Madrid and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg also organized retrospectives.

In addition to these major shows, Bourgeois was given many awards.  She was named an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French minister of culture in 1983; the Grand Prix National de Sculpture from the French government in 1991; the National Medal of Arts, presented by Bill Clinton, in 1997; election as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and the first lifetime achievement award from the International Sculpture Center in Washington DC.

In the late 1990s, Bourgeois began to use the spider as her central image.  She made giant 35 foot spider watchtowers for the Tate in 1999-2000, another in the Rockefeller Plaza in New York, and also in Havana, Bilbao, St. Petersburg, and Seoul, as well as smaller versions throughout the world.

Bourgeois was also a devoted teacher, particularly after her husband’s death in 1973.  She taught at the School of Visual Arts, Columbia University, Cooper Union, New York Studio, and Yale University.  She continued to teach up until her death, holding salon sessions to which young artists would bring their work for Bourgeois’ uncompromising critique.  She died in New York City at the age of 98.

1. Michael McNay, “Louise Bourgeois Obituary,” The Guardian, May 31, 2010.

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