- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2006

Most 94-year-olds just want to take it easy before time runs out. Not Louise Bourgeois, the nonagenarian New York artist, who still likes to stir things up. Her creepy spiders, sexually suggestive couplings and knife-wielding nudes, on view at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, are images not usually associated with the elderly. Bourgeois hardly seems fitting as a last name for this Paris-born provocateur.

One of few famous women in the macho art world, Miss Bourgeois is sculpture’s answer to feminist crusader Betty Friedan, who died a week ago, giving the Baltimore retrospective an unexpected timeliness. Like Mrs. Friedan’s groundbreaking book,” The Feminine Mystique,” the artist’s idiosyncratic, sexually charged pieces were among the first to challenge cultural norms from the perspective of her own experience.

“I have endeavored during my whole lifetime as a sculptor to turn woman from an object into an active subject,” Miss Bourgeois said in 1975.

Her feminist sensibility pervades “Louise Bourgeois: Femme.” The exhibit was co-created by the Walters, where most of the works are shown, and Baltimore’s Contemporary Museum, which also has mounted a small display.

This fragmented, uneven survey of older pieces, mostly culled from the artist’s own collection, concentrates on Miss Bourgeois’ decades-long preoccupation with the female body and psyche — how it is shaped, objectified and devalued. Some of the sculptures, symbolizing enforced domesticity and female submissiveness, seem like relics in light of social advancements since the early days of the women’s movement. Others, dealing with childhood traumas and family relationships, come off as psychobabble in 3D. Miss Bourgeois, apparently, hasn’t moved on.

Her most potent works are based on “primitive” and classical themes, and the Walters works hard to show how her contemporary sculptures relate to history.

That is, if you can find them. Instead of being grouped together in a separate exhibit space, the 39 works are dispersed throughout the permanent collection.

This treasure hunt of a show is a clever ploy to get visitors into the mustier parts of the museum. (A map and pink wall texts in the galleries help pinpoint the location of each piece.) It also succeeds in revealing Miss Bourgeois’ understanding of cultural traditions and her knowing use of them to critique the conventions established by male artists.

In the Walters’ gallery of Roman art, “Femme Maison,” a puddle of marble drapery topped by a buildinglike carving, seems inspired by the surrounding antique statuary. Yet the feeling of deflation and introspection expressed by this “housewife” is completely at odds with the heroic busts and torsos, almost as if foreshadowing the inevitable collapse of their ancient empire.

“St. Sebastienne,” displayed in a gallery of early Renaissance artworks, is a female fabric figure shot full of steel arrows. It’s an obvious feminist play on the painting of the martyred St. Sebastian hanging nearby. In a gallery of 17th-century paintings, a black marble nude with a knifelike head looks as threatening as the biblical Judith decapitating Holofernes in the dramatic scene hung above it.

Other Bourgeois pieces blend into cases full of old artifacts, as if they belonged to the same era. It’s easy to miss her gold spider brooch in a vitrine of art-nouveau jewelry by Rene Lalique and the glass beaded noose called “Chastity Belt” hung in the museum’s re-creation of a 15th-century lady’s chamber.

These juxtapositions create a visual tension and have you look at both the historical and contemporary artworks with fresh eyes. The comparative display, organized with the assistance of the artist’s collaborator, Jerry Gorovoy, also comes across as an ego trip, calculated to leave the impression that Miss Bourgeois’ works are as canonical as many of the artifacts around them. Certainly, her sculptures appear far more interesting in this context than they would be on their own, but few can be categorized as true masterpieces (pardon the term).

The French-born artist has been called the last surrealist, and her sculptures often exude a nightmarish feeling. Themes of loss, alienation and menace haunt her figures. She often depersonalizes them by leaving out specific physical details and subtracting or adding body parts. Many of her sculptures are based on memories from her remarkable life.

At age 15, Miss Bourgeois studied mathematics at the Sorbonne. She went on to train at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and work as an assistant to cubist Fernand Leger. In 1938, she moved with her husband, art historian Robert Goldwater, to New York, where she still lives.

Her parents restored tapestries, a skill often represented in her sculptures.

One of the most playful of the Bourgeois pieces at the Walters is a “Roman” bust covered in bits of old tapestry, with the fabric patterns positioned carefully to form eyes and ears.

A recurrent image is the spider, a symbol of Miss Bourgeois’ tapestry-weaving mother. A big bronze one perches on the wall just off the Walters’ Centre Street lobby.

Nearby hangs “The Couple,” the most optimistic work in the show. The suspended sculpture, made from shiny aluminum, resembles a joined pair of ecstatic Cupids, their spiraled upper bodies resembling Diary Queen swirls of soft ice cream.

Miss Bourgeois also draws on more painful memories, including her father’s affair with a live-in English tutor, to create images of estrangement. The less ambitious portion of the exhibit at the Contemporary, dubbed the “Louise Lounge,” concentrates on these in a few “Topiary” etchings and sculptures.

The treelike women with missing limbs and crutches are meant to represent broken relationships and survival. “Even with our handicaps,” the artist is quoted as saying, “there is a determination to live, stand up, grow and be beautiful.” Victimization, too, is all too present, and the grouping, like some other works in the Walters show, comes off as a pity party.

Also featured at the Contemporary is a recent French film about Miss Bourgeois that provides insight into her psychological obsessions. In the documentary, the artist rambles on about tapestries while rearranging remnants from several on a table. At one point she declares, “I never got a scrap of tapestry from my father’s legacy. Not a scrap!” Time has not mellowed this artist, even in old age.

WHAT: “Louise Bourgeois: Femme”

WHERE: The Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St.; Contemporary Museum, 100 W. Centre St., Baltimore

WHEN: Through May 21 at the Walters Art Museum: 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Through April 23 at the Contemporary Museum: noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

TICKETS: The Walters Art Museum: $10 adults; $8 seniors; $6 college students; $2 children ages 6 to 17; free for members and children under 6; Contemporary Museum: $3 to 5 suggested donation.

PHONE: The Walters Art Museum: 410/547-9000; Contemporary Museum: 410/783-5720

WEB SITE: www.thewalters.org; www.contemporary.org

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