Conversation: The Life, Work and Legacy of Louise Bourgeois, 1911-2010

BY Jeffrey Brown  June 1, 2010 at 2:05 PM EST

One of the world’s most influential contemporary artists died on Monday. Louise Bourgeois was a French-born American artist and sculptor who emigrated to the United States in 1938. Her work, often abstract, dealt with issues of the body — particularly around themes of womanhood and childhood. (One of her most well-known works is a giant sculpture of a spider called “Maman.” Another is titled “The Destruction of the Father.”) She was also known as a mentor to younger artists and spent time critiquing their work.

Earlier Tuesday, I talked to Nancy Spector, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Guggenheim Museum, which was the site of a 2008 retrospective of Bourgeois’ work, about her life, work and legacy:

(A full transcript is after the jump.)

Click the image below for a slide show of Bourgeois’ work:

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Much more on Bourgeois can be found at PBS’ Art:21.

JEFFREY BROWN: Joining me now is Nancy Spector, chief curator of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which was the site of a 2008 retrospective of the work of Louise Bourgeois. Welcome to you.

NANCY SPECTOR: Hello.

JEFFREY BROWN: Start with the 2008 retrospective, as you were involved with it. What did you see in that work? What made her so important?

NANCY SPECTOR: Her sculpture and inspirations and drawings were so incredibly unique. She was able to fuse abstraction and really profound emotional content in a way that our visitors were moved and transformed by the experience of seeing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: The sculptures — there are always many forms, lots of materials, right, but often focused on the body or the idea of the body.

NANCY SPECTOR: Yes. The body was very sensual to her work both in an abstract way and sometimes quite figurative. But it wasn’t just the physical body, it was the emotional body, the psychological body, how bodies felt.

JEFFREY BROWN: She once wrote in commenting on her work, “Everything I do was inspired by my early life.” Can you tell us a little bit about that early life and what happened to inspire the work?

NANCY SPECTOR: There is a very strong biographical content in the work. But of course that is only one reading of it. She both emphasized it and then wanted to people to see her practice and her production also separately from that, but the story, which is now very well known, is that she grew up in a wealthy family outside of Paris. Her parents were tapestry restorers and she worked herself on drawing on missing images on the tapestries. Her mother was an invalid and her father carried on a 10-year affair with their English nanny. And Louise was furious about this and much of the work deals with the notion of betrayal and pain and the need that she felt to support or mother and her anger at her father and that’s played out in much of her work.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you give us an example of the how the work tried to capture that or tell that?

NANCY SPECTOR: Well, quite literally, there is a work called “Destruction of the Father,” which is an installation.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s pretty literal isn’t it…

NANCY SPECTOR: Yeah. But of course the forms are very abstract, because that was her primary language. It’s an installation that’s set into a wall and these bulbous, sometimes phallic-like forms surround a kind of central table-like image. And in her mind there was this idea of the children attacking the father and literally devouring him at the dinner table.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, she married an American and she moved to the United States fairly early on, but she wasn’t hugely successful early in the 50’s and even 60’s right?

NANCY SPECTOR: Well, she actually did have some very important early exhibitions in 1949, 1948 of her sculptures, these totem-like figures. She described them as surrogates for family members and friends who she missed, who she had left behind in France. And this was the time of the burgeoning abstract expressionist period, and these artists were her peers, but she took time away from making work to raise her family, and I think it was time of introspection. And she began to work again in the 60’s with very different materials, with latex and instead of kind of carving more, more kind of layering and casting. Then she started working with marble. I think that her kind of renaissance and recognition in the art world had a lot to do at that time with the feminist movement. She was embraced by a lot of the younger women artists, and felt that she, because of her pioneering work, really gave them license as artists to explore, you know, different vocabularies, different materials, and also the deeply emotional element of her art.

JEFFREY BROWN: How did she feel about that? I mean, inevitably, you know, perhaps one of the ways she is seen, just as you say as a feminist icon, is that correct? I mean, did she think of her work that way?

NANCY SPECTOR: Yes and no. Louise understood her practice on many different levels and I think she resisted any kind of pigeonholing. However, she felt very, very strongly about the power of women to make art and to succeed on, you know, any level that they strive for.

JEFFREY BROWN: For a wider audience, I mean, perhaps the best known works are those very large sculptures, particularly the spider, right, one titled “Maman,” mother?

NANCY SPECTOR: The spider has been a motif in Louise’s work since the 40’s. There are small drawings actually showing little spiders — we had a few on view at the Guggenheim — and I believe that the spiders for Louise symbolized her mother, who the spider being an industrious insect, one who in Louise’s mind nurtures. And, of course, it relates to the myth of Ariadne, who is the weaver. So I think in Louise’s mind, the spider is restorative and nurturing, though shown in these kind of monstrous proportions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, kind of scary at the same time, right?

NANCY SPECTOR: Yeah, but her work always has a double-edge to it. It’s both seductive and this luxury of beautiful materials, liked carved marble often, you know, pink, fleshy colored marble, but at the same time it’s abstract and strange and sometimes erotic and sensual, sometimes, you know, more terrifying.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what was she like as a person?

NANCY SPECTOR: She had a very good sense of humor and not an enormous amount of patience with people who were not serious.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which meant what?

NANCY SPECTOR: She wanted people to get to get the point.

JEFFREY BROWN: I don’t think she loved to do interviews. I tried at least once that I remember, and I don’t know if it was television or, did she not like talking about her work? I mean she did some interviews obviously.

NANCY SPECTOR: Yes, I think, my sense is that there was a point — and her career was so long — and she reached a point in her life where she might have felt like she said as much as she was going to say in that kind of context. And she also collaborated with a few people over the last few decades of her career, making films and interviews and working on books of collected writing, so I think that she was pretty select in the kinds of interviews that she would give and the small circle of people she worked with.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, I won’t take it personally. So just finally just to sum up, I mean, there was an incredibly long life and long career, and you have just touched on abstract expressionist friends to the feminist movement, all kinds of things, so how influential and in what ways does she, has she influenced artists today?

NANCY SPECTOR: Well, up until recently Louise was hosting salons in which younger artists could come and show her their work. And she would critique it, so she felt very connected to the generation of contemporary artists. And I think artists felt really energized by that kind of respect, which is fairly rare, I think, to have an artist of her stature taking the time to look at this work. And I think the work, from my experience of seeing it installed at the Guggenheim, felt in many ways very, very contemporary. And, you know, the fact that she was working with installation art, you know, large-scale work, immersive work up toward the end of her life it was very inspiring.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Nancy Spector of the Guggenheim Museum on the life and work and work of Louise Bourgeois. Thank you very much.

NANCY SPECTOR: You’re welcome.