- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

French-born artist Louise Bourgeois has built a career on working through her psychic pain and anger. She reconstructs symbols of her inner demons in order to exorcise them.

This ongoing conflict resolution has resulted in sculpture both repulsive and enticing, as evident in the well-paced retrospective of the artist’s work in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

From fabric-encased figures to room-sized installations, the 107 pieces in the six-decade survey are wildly disparate but united by a daring exploration of materials, imagery and emotions.

Nearly every piece is rooted in Ms. Bourgeois’ personal story, particularly her childhood traumas. Raised in France, she helped care for her chronically ill mother while her father carried on a long-term affair with the family’s English governess. Her parents ran a tapestry restoration business where she learned to draw and sew.

In 1938, she married Robert Goldwater, an American art historian, and the two settled in New York. She continued to draw and sculpt in the surrealist style, which was fashionable at the time, and came to be influenced by feminism and her study of psychology. Her quirky, fetishistic art differed from the impersonal abstraction of the male-dominated art establishment and only came to be appreciated in the late 1970s when she was in her 60s.

Understanding Ms. Bourgeois’ biography enriches the experience of viewing her eclectic art, which can be opaque in its layers of personal references. Aiding the viewer are informative wall texts, family photos and a short film featuring the artist’s commentary on her work.

Organized by London’s Tate Modern and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the touring exhibition makes its last stop at the Hirshhorn. It has been reconfigured to include five sculptures not seen at the previous venues, including pieces from the Hirshhorn’s collection.

Those visitors familiar with Ms. Bourgeois’ signature spiders will find the creatures play only a tiny role within her expansive career. More pervasive is her intense interest in architecture as an expression of confinement, refuge and entrapment.

This preoccupation begins with a series from the late 1940s titled “Femme Maison” (literally “woman home”). Substituting houses for the heads of female bodies, the paintings symbolize the once primary role of women as housewives, as well as the artist’s view of the home as a place in which to explore her ideas.

Around the same time, Ms. Bourgeois completed a series of prints depicting skeletal towers alongside texts she had written. These stories of disappointment, some unintentionally humorous, suggest people are isolated from one another much like the disjointed, inaccessible buildings in the illustrations.

Continuing this link between people and architecture are the “Personages,” painted wood totems made by the artist between 1945 and 1955 on the roof of her Manhattan apartment building. The tall, thin pilings recall human figures — the artist saw them as surrogates for friends and family left behind in France — as well as the skyscrapers of her adopted city.

The culmination of the series is a sculpture from the Hirshhorn’s collection, “The Blind Leading the Blind” (perhaps named for Ms. Bourgeois’ self-directed art). Its free-standing assembly of posts and lintels suggests an arcade or a large table, the kind of abstracted utilitarianism now embraced by sculptors like Martin Puryear.

According to the exhibition catalog, the 1947-49 piece allowed Ms. Bourgeois to re-enact her childhood practice of hiding under the dinner table during family squabbles. Its tapered legs may be a reference to the stiltlike supports used by her friend, French architect Le Corbusier. Whatever the interpretation, the bold work reveals the artist’s growing confidence in the medium of sculpture.

Ms. Bourgeois changed her style and materials in the 1960s, but kept exploring architectural themes. She modeled spiral and labyrinthine sculptures from plaster, latex and resin into small structures resembling animal lairs and nests.

In 1974, she assembled organic forms into her first installation. Called “The Destruction of the Father,” this red-bathed diorama of bulbous shapes looks like it was plucked from the set of a sci-fi movie. One of the most heavy-handed pieces in the show, it symbolizes the artist’s yearning to tear apart her tyrannical father and serve his remains at the family dinner table. Some of the pieces were cast from animal parts purchased at a local meat market.

More complex, free-standing environments follow to reflect Ms. Bourgeois’ ongoing interest in exploring her personal recollections through architecture. Called “Cells,” these chambers were created in the 1990s when the artist was in her 80s.

Some are enclosed by old doors scavenged from houses to provide only glimpses of found objects and sculptures within their interiors. The partial views of these “Red Rooms” only make the references to Ms. Bourgeois’ childhood even harder to discern.

More accessible are the cagelike “Cells” made of wire mesh and windows. The most dramatic of these superimposes a giant spider over a cylinder partially covered in worn tapestry fragments. Visible in a basket above a chair inside the enclosure are the “eggs” laid by the gracefully sculpted insect.

The artwork as metaphor for Ms. Bourgeois mother, who wove tapestries and gave birth, is easily understood, while the identity of the spider is left ambiguous. The viewer is left to decide whether the arachnid is a predator or a protector.

Few messages are conveyed directly in the art of Ms. Bourgeois, who is still working at age 97. She addresses the difficulty of clear communication in an installation called “Cell (12 Oval Mirrors),” one of the works exclusive to the Hirshhorn exhibit. The architectonic piece invites viewers to sit in low wooden seats while confronting distorted images of themselves and their fellow visitors in movable, reflective panels arranged in a circle.

Mixed messages of clarity and opacity, beauty and offensiveness, danger and domesticity are just some of the signals sent by Ms. Bourgeois’ diverse sculptures. Common to all her work is the belief in creativity as a survival strategy for coping with anxiety, fear and depression.

As Ms. Bourgeois spells out in an untitled 1996 embroidery, “I have been to hell and back. And let me tell you, it was wonderful.”

WHAT: “Louise Bourgeois”

WHERE: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street Southwest

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily; through May 17

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

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