A Coney Island of the Viscera: An artist, a house, a continent of thought submerged
When I met her, in the mid-1980s, it was by way of a mash note she sent in the mail to the paper I wrote for, not so much thanking me for a review but offering something better than thanks: a terse, oddly touching missive indicating that I’d fathomed her current show very well. Soon afterwards, Louise Bourgeois and I became friends.
We met infrequently, however, and seldom by design. Perhaps I should say we bore an emotional likeness that precluded seeing each other with any regularity. We were both intellectually combative, anxiety-ridden, insecure, depressive and wretchedly insomniac, and we both sported egos prone to inflate like dirigibles, then shrink to pea-size within the span of a sneeze. We wanted love but couldn’t stand most people from whom we wanted it. My encounters with Louise were always cordial, affectionate in fact, but a spectral nervousness pestered the atmosphere. Her fear of others mirrored mine, and I knew how unaccountably that fear could flip into aggression. I cringed at the prospect of bothering her, making her angry or losing her respect, and I thought the risk of those things happening would likely rise the more time I spent with her. Few figures in the landscape besides Jack Smith activated this kind of guarded endearment in me. And Jack was scary. Possibly I was paranoid. But there it is. There was nothing simple about Louise. But unlike the market-conscious artists I knew, she was refreshingly direct and said what she thought without holding back. She didn’t waste words, and she used them precisely, in both French and English. Her observations cut through the grease of small talk. She referenced literature, philosophy and science, all eruditely and with fervor. I didn’t know she’d attended the Lycée Fénelon or studied mathematics and philosophy at the Sorbonne; finding it out later didn’t surprise me. She was tiny and, by the time I met her, old, though she lived for many more years. Like many old people do to young people, she looked like a peacock feather could knock her over. Once in a blue moon, I dropped in on the Sunday salons she hosted at her Chelsea brownstone—a peculiar mix of international pathologies. Young artists turned up to show off their work and often got a brutal reception. Louise was a hilarious terror. She enjoyed getting people drunk to prod secrets out of them. She loved sexual gossip. She insulted strangers at whim, ignored their flattery, ridiculed their clothing, acted out.
Her home had a take-it-or-leave-it decrepitude. When she moved there in 1962 with her husband, the art historian Robert Goldwater, the townhouse was newly renovated; after his death in 1973, she got rid of its domestic trappings and turned the whole place into her studio. She had grown up in a Balzacian milieu of high-end artisans, amid external signs of refinement. She didn’t want any of that around her. Louise, who used every imaginable material in her work, from steel mesh and Carrara marble to miniature safety pins and her own ripped-up dresses, was visibly not a materialist in her life. Not a consumer, at any rate. She remained indifferent to pricey creature comforts even when, in later life, she easily could have afforded them. She cooked on a hot plate, in a kitchen smaller than a Hollywood closet. She jotted phone numbers on the walls, where she also pinned snapshots, invitations, awards, exhibition fliers, newspaper clippings, postcards, letters, little watercolors and whatnot. She scribbled and sketched on any handy surface—envelopes, scraps of newspaper, torn cardboard, playing cards. She treasured books, mostly paperbacks, stacked and shelved in no discernible order. She never threw anything out. In those years, she still left the house; we ran into each other at openings. As it happens, I loved her. At her house one afternoon, she fetched the monkey fur she wore in the famous portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe, draped it over my shoulders and said, ‘I think you should wear this for a while.’ In the summer of 2007, Louise’s longtime assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, contacted me, proposing I collaborate with her on what became the handmade, sewn-linen book To Whom It May Concern, fabricated in an edition of seven. (A larger facsimile edition was later published by Robert Violette.) Louise had done a gouache series of headless, distorted human figures, some male, some female, their thin red outlines filled in with mottled washes. I could add whatever I liked. Rather than tamper with these risibly unsettling pictures, I decided to write separate prose poems (37, it turned out) as verbal accompaniment.
I want to be the owner of my own trouble.—Louise Bourgeois
This project took nearly three years. It isn’t entirely out of place here to say that when I first met with Jerry about it—in a restaurant, over dinner, in the company of his friend Scott Lyon and the artist Nicola L.—I was so firmly immured in a years-long depression that I nodded off at the table after we looked over the maquettes. I dimly perceived that Louise and Jerry were throwing me a lifeline, but catching it took a supreme act of false bravura. With copies of the gouaches nearby, I slowly began writing, a process that felt at first like dragging myself over razor wire. I wanted to match the tangled emotions emanating from Louise’s pictures, which seemed to fuse antic defiance and saturnine resignation. My rough model was the Henri Barbusse novel ‘L’Enfer’—Hell. That book describes what occurs over an uncertain span in a single hotel room. The occupants change, but each one is in some personal inferno, even during coitus. The stories in ‘To Whom It May Concern’ are the sub-vocal ruminations of nameless people fucking. Coming apart. Disembodied voices brimming with rage, remorse, erotic sublimity, self-contempt, melancholia. The texts accumulated over many months. My depression lifted, one suspect layer at a time. I then had the bizarre task to sustain, for half the book, the tone of psychic extremity I’d started with and had just crawled out of. If you read through the texts now, it’s impossible to distinguish between ‘written from Hades’ and ‘written.’ Moreover, they’re not as bleak as I thought they were. Which tells you something about the solipsism of depression—and by corollary, perhaps, a little about Louise Bourgeois’ creative process as well. As she once embroidered on a handkerchief, ‘I have been to hell and back. And let me tell you, it was wonderful.’
She knew that conflicts stemming from her childhood—fears of abandonment and betrayal, depressive episodes, bursts of rage, wishes for revenge, erotic frustration—were both the primary cause of her neuroses and the vital catalyst of her work…Memory served and undermined her in syncopation.
While working with Louise, I gleaned a clearer sense of her work’s ingenious diversity, its meticulousness, its sources in her lived experience. And with that, a sense of the multiple roles Jerry Gorovoy, whom I’d known for years outside Louise’s realm, played in her life: as studio assistant, best friend, negotiator, muse, model, lay psychiatrist, exhibition supervisor. He was indispensable. Louise lived at the mercy of her moods, except when at work on tangible things, when she could translate her physical and emotional sensations into some form of art. Believing, sensibly, that working held her inner chaos at bay, she never stopped. Inactivity was her nemesis. Jerry kept her as steady as possible, with the sensitivity and patience of Prince Myshkin, for 30 years. ‘You do the work,’ he told her, ‘and I will take care of everything else.’ He did. It wouldn’t be flippant to say that Louise Bourgeois devoted a lifetime to excavating her unconscious. She worked with what she dug up, transforming it into art that, in turn, peered into everybody’s unconscious. Libidinal spillage and reverberating trauma assumed shapes of mutating bodies, paradoxical architectures and amorphic objects that seemed to inhabit ‘the world inside this one,’ a Coney Island of the Viscera that would have been Freud’s first stop if he’d come to America decades later than he did.
Keenly introspective, she knew that conflicts stemming from her childhood—fears of abandonment and betrayal, depressive episodes, bursts of rage, wishes for revenge, erotic frustration—were both the primary cause of her neuroses and the vital catalyst of her work. As the poet John Giorno memorably put it, ‘You got to burn to shine.’ Memory served and undermined her in syncopation. She struggled to live in the present by somehow repairing the past, the way she’d helped repair tapestries for her family’s restoration business in her youth. The configuration she incessantly revisited, turning it every which way like a Rubik’s Cube, is well known. Louis, the adored, resented, philandering father; Josephine, the revered invalid mother; Louise, the daughter alert to mute transactions buried under the family’s genteel lineaments. This ensemble cast of a psychic ceremony moved restively through her memories. Sometimes its personnel changed into figures from her second family (husband, adopted son Michel, natal sons Jean-Louis and Alain). If the puzzle pieces never clicked into lasting resolution, Louise explored their every conceivable Oedipal nuance and possible restaging. This is far from the only theme in her work, but it is the central one, the ur-geometry problem, the existential triangle. In interviews, she often cited psychoanalytic theory. Louise consumed the work of Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, Marie Bonaparte, Karen Horney, Carl Jung, Wilhelm Stekel and many others. She fibbed, on at least one occasion, that she’d never needed treatment herself. In reality, she undertook analysis soon after her father died in 1951. She first saw Dr. Leonard Cammer, who later founded Gracie Square Hospital, then Dr. Henry Lowenfeld, a Freudian trained by Wilhelm Reich, from 1952 through 1982, with diminished frequency after 1966. The first 11 years of analysis marked a prolonged dry spell in which Louise produced very little art. Her father’s loss triggered an unbearable depression. Grief over her mother’s death in 1932 had prompted her to abandon mathematics and become an artist. The death of her father had an almost contrary effect. In 2004, Jerry uncovered two metal boxes of Louise’s writings tucked away in her house—records of dreams and process notes on loose sheets, created as an adjunct to her analysis with Lowenfeld, for whom she sometimes made carbon copies. After studying these all-but-forgotten papers, Louise later began to feature statements and phrases from them and from her diaries on lead metal plaques, and in prints and fabric pieces. She often used handwriting as a drawing stylus to render spirals, spokes or snaking lines, in the spirit of Apollinaire’s ‘Calligrammes.’
Her dream records and process notes belong to a category of literature that isn’t really a category but a threadable array of texts impossible to imitate or classify.
In 2010, Jerry found two additional boxes of writings. Almost a thousand pages in total have turned up. With Louise’s approval, Philip Larratt-Smith selected and edited 93 of them for the catalogue accompanying his exhibition ‘The Return of the Repressed,’ which toured South America in 2011. A version of the show, along with several of the actual writings, ended up at London’s Freud Museum in 2012. The bulk of the psychoanalytic writings are currently being prepared and annotated by Larratt-Smith for publication by Princeton University Press, in conjunction with his exhibition titled ‘Freud’s Daughter,’ which will open in September 2020 at the Jewish Museum in New York. Aside from obvious documentary value, these writings usefully add to the history of psychoanalysis, and also comprise a compelling, frequently deranging literary artifact of a very high order. I think their distinction owes a lot to the fact that they weren’t intended as literary works, since today so many things intending to be merely ape the idea of literary works. (I’m aware that the latter sentiment was voiced in previous eras but doubt if it’s ever been as true as it is now. Today’s MacArthur genius is yesterday’s Edna Ferber.) Louise wrote many things in a conventionally accessible style—artist statements, reviews of books and exhibitions, magazine articles. She wrote about the little antiquities Freud kept on his desk, about Gaston Lachaise, about gender issues, about individual pieces and discrete phases of her own work. She was a prodigious letter-writer, and, as previously noted, kept daily diaries. Owing to a lifelong fear of abandonment, she identified with the discarded and the rejected, and hence never threw anything out. (Maggie Wright, the director of Bourgeois’ foundation, The Easton Foundation, can attest to the archival vastness of written material Louise held on to.) The psychoanalytic writings differ radically from other pieces Louise produced. Drastically unfiltered, they emanate from the most defenseless part of the writer’s brain. Though meant to be read by at least one other person, her analyst, they clearly speak to the author herself rather than to an audience:
Week end: chestnut thorns on the outside masochism = thorns on the inside. guilt turned against self return to the symbolism of the bottle play at filling up bottles (hot water) The box shaped like a small coffin. story of the roasted child = a child is killed—Finally the bottle of hot water—The good little girl is laid down in the small coffin. Equivalent to a masochism brought to an expiatory suicide— early religious training—later on, for my mother I will become a prostitute— aggression against children… I listen, unalarmed to the owl that cries (11 am) about— The death which I feared in the house was mine—I tell myself but Louise you are not going to kill yourself it is not necessary, you are strong enough now to push suicide away—
(loose sheet of writing, c. 1959 [LB-0230])
These writings don’t ‘explain’ Louise’s visual art. Myriad things informed her practice: Sartrean existentialism, La Fontaine’s fables, Pascal’s ‘Pensées,’ Leibniz’s theory of monads, Molière, René Descartes, Montaigne’s essays and Stéphane Mallarmé, to cite only a few literary and philosophical touchstones. Music was also important. Art history, not so much. At least not in the sense that she made anything with an eye to historical antecedents, or even to current art. She never aligned herself with any school or movement; the only contemporary she seems to have spoken of with unqualified respect was Francis Bacon. Louise visited Bacon in the late ’50s, later writing that he had a face like a ripe melon. He may be the only peer whose work comes readily to mind when encountering hers. The screaming mouths in her fabric heads echo the scream of Bacon’s pope. The writhing figures in Bacon’s paintings could plausibly inhabit Louise’s ‘Cells.’ Her dream records and process notes belong to a category of literature that isn’t really a category but a threadable array of texts impossible to imitate or classify. Many such writings (though hardly all) perform for the author a purgative or exorcistic function, and reflect a paradoxically winning indifference, even hostility, towards a prospective reader. Their approximation of how thought is conditioned by emotion, the attempt to stop received language from overdetermining how we use words—or to say it another way, the struggle to make language record what’s really going on in our heads instead of turning it into a manicured lie—is nicely exampled by Gertrude Stein:
It is not well to doubt the reason why fortuitous is colored in the way that not to think again . Thank you. Enigma makes Susan do. Separately fall follow through antagonistic.
What is grammar to a hare in running. A grammar is in need of little words. There can be no grammar without and if if you are prevailed upon to be very well and thank you. Grammar is meant to have fairly soften fairly often it is alight in white and makes a goat have a mother and a sister two are mother and daughter when the days are long there is more necessity for distraction and walks are pleasant. Arthur a grammar or manner. (Stein, ‘How to Write’) Close mimicries of consciousness, such texts necessarily resist cohesion. They rupture whatever forms they assume, whether novel, play, poem or fable. Louise’s loose pages most closely resemble what Francis Ponge dubbed his ‘proems,’ multiform variations on a subject—in Louise’s case, her own interiority. Some pages simply list associations around an isolated fixé, like a broth reduction:
The analysis is a jip is a trap is a job is a privilege is a luxury is a duty is a duty towards myself my husband. my parents my children my is a shame is a farce is a love affair is a rendez-vous is a cat + mouse game is a boat to drive is an internment is a joke makes me powerless makes me into a cop is a bad dream is my interest is my field of study— is more than I can manage makes me furious is a bore is a nuisance is a pain in the neck—(loose sheet of writing, c. 1958 [LB-0127])
Ontological present and recollected past oscillate inside her psychoanalytic texts, demolishing boundaries. Vagaries of spelling and grammar, quirky line breaks, and shifts between French and English reflect their fidelity to the ebb and flow of cogitation. Louise compulsively returns to what she called ‘the family virus,’ examining it in a prose Petri dish. Tales are never quite spoken aloud but rather whispered in snippets, intruded upon by the sudden appearance of a boiled egg or Victor Hugo, and then they start telling themselves again, their details abruptly, weirdly recast by baffling changes in the narrator’s demeanor. Something similar occurs in the tenseless novels of William S. Burroughs and the oneiric texts of Unica Zürn. In Anna Kavan’s novel ‘Ice,’ the narrative’s premise begins to dissolve almost as soon as it’s established. ‘Ice’ tells a story that advances only by undermining its own logic, going back on its word, so to speak, as the author repeatedly tries and fails to assemble compulsively recurring, fetishized images into a sequence that will rid her of them once and for all. This cannot happen. Like Louise Bourgeois’ fixations, they can be expelled only in order for them to return. At their extremity, the writings I have in mind share instantly legible characteristics: anomalous, organic, elusive, fragmentary, issuing from the soul’s depths and driven by an overpowering and tortuous desire, recognized in advance as futile, to scrape down to the raw marrow of existence. One astonishing example is Sarah Kane’s final play—the prelude to her suicide—4.48 ‘Psychosis.’ Another is Antonin Artaud’s ‘The Nerve Meter’ (1925):
I have aspired no further than the clockwork of the soul, I have transcribed only the pain of an abortive adjustment. I am a total abyss. Those who believed me capable of a whole pain, a beautiful pain, a dense and fleshy anguish, an anguish which is a mixture of objects, an effervescent grinding of forces rather than a suspended point. —and yet with restless, uprooting impulses which come from the confrontation of my forces with these abysses of offered finality (from the confrontation of forces of powerful size), and there is nothing left but the voluminous abysses, the immobility, the cold— in short, those who attributed to me more life, who thought me at an earlier stage in the fall from the self, who believed me immersed in a tormented noise, in a violent darkness with which I struggled —are lost in the shadows of man.
For much of her life, Louise Bourgeois lived close to the edge. A brilliant intellect and vast artistic gifts inhabited the same body as a medley of ungovernable emotions, a strong self-destructive urge conspicuous among them. Yet she never had to be institutionalized like Artaud and didn’t manage to kill herself like Kane; Louise knew how to save herself. ‘Art is a guarantee of sanity’: This was her credo, her unwavering faith, and although it doesn’t always turn out to be true for artists, for her it did. Which was very fortunate for us as well. – Louise Bourgeois: To Unravel a Torment is on view at Museum Voorlinden 12 October 2019 – 17 May 2020. This six-decade survey exhibition features forty pivotal works from the Glenstone Collection, The Easton Foundation and Voorlinden. This is the most comprehensive collection of Louise Bourgeois artworks shown in the Netherlands in nearly 30 years.