Conversations

‘The intolerable is a climate we share’

Jenny Holzer on Louise Bourgeois
Jenny Holzer. Photo: Xandra M. Linsin
29 Apr 2022
This interview was originally published in German in the March 2022 issue of Monopol Magazine

Experiencing one artist’s work through the eyes of another offers a unique opportunity: the conceptual framework of the latter teases out certain elements in the oeuvre of the former, leading to richer interpretations of both practices. This is certainly the case with ‘The Violence of Handwriting Across a Page,’ an exhibition of Louise Bourgeois’ work curated by Jenny Holzer on view this spring at Kunstmuseum Basel. Holzer approaches Bourgeois with a focus on the role of writing in her practice—in her artwork as well as her diaries, letters, and psychoanalytic writings. On the occasion of the exhibition, Holzer corresponded with Sebastian Frenzel, deputy editor-in-chief of Monopol Magazine, discussing Bourgeois’ work and her legacy, art and politics, and—of course—language.

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled (I Have Been to Hell and Back), 1996. © The Easton Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society, New York. Photo: Christopher Burke

Sebastian Frenzel: Today, Louise Bourgeois is considered one of the most important artists of the 20th century, but for a large time of her lifetime she remained widely unknown. Was she part of the curriculum when you studied art in the early 1970s? When did you first come across her work?

Jenny Holzer: Bourgeois is a tremendously important artist, but she was invisible to me in the 1960s and for much of the 1970s. Her absence was deprivation. It wasn’t until I lived in New York City that I became aware of Bourgeois’ work and of her person.

SF: When did you first meet her personally?

JH: I sat with Louise for the first time in her house, a place to understand much about her practice and daily life. She was surrounded there by artwork in progress. I recall an erect red wax ear close by, stuck to a table. The ear seemed to have been cut from a dangerous animal. There were soft fabric pieces, too, notably a stuffed pink woman, larger than Louise, who kept us company while we talked on the couch.

SF: How would you describe your friendship? Were you soulmates or attracting opposites?

JH: I can’t claim friendship. I’m backward and I respect privacy, so I’d orbit Bourgeois at some distance. I can report that she was kind to me, and we talked about art and the seriousness of its making. That conversation was a gift, as I can feel absurd about monomania when working, and I’m usually working. I observed that Louise was a relentless worker. There is much evidence of her relentlessness, even when tormented or maybe especially when tormented.

‘It was logical and thrilling to concentrate on language, as Bourgeois was eloquent, well-read, smart, hilarious, fearless, wracked, spewing—and I like words.’—Jenny Holzer

SF: At Kunstmuseum Basel, you have curated an exhibition that focuses on Louise Bourgeois’ use of language. How did the idea for the exhibition evolve?

JH: It was logical and thrilling to concentrate on language, as Bourgeois was eloquent, well-read, smart, hilarious, fearless, wracked, spewing—and I like words. I saw a Bourgeois exhibition at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery and was taken by her writing there, especially what was composed when she couldn’t sleep, the ‘Insomnia Drawings.’ The middle of the night is a truth-telling time. I wanted to read more after Fruitmarket, I did, and I learned there’s a text torrent to offer people. Our Basel show includes representative Bourgeois artworks in various media, with some seldom-seen pieces and unusual arrays, but the language focus distinguishes the exhibition, I trust.

SF: How would you describe her use of language?

JH: Obsessive, insistent, circling, confessional, companionable, murderous, decorated, incisive, surreal, damning, forensic, lacerating and occasionally a laugh riot.

SF: Did you talk about the use of language in art?

JH: No, and I should have. Instead, I’ve learned by looking because much of her writing is visual. And by studying the content I’ve gained some understanding of what Bourgeois remembered, played, imagined, analyzed, regretted, repeated, stitched, tortured, rejected, and let fly.

SF: Did you talk about literature?

JH: No, and that was exceedingly stupid of me.

Louise and I did have an extended conversation about a color. We spoke about finding, tweaking, re-revisiting, and ensuring the right color as if this were the most serious thing in the world. The right art decision can and must be a most serious thing in our world.

Installation view, ‘Louise Bourgeois x Jenny Holzer: The Violence of Handwriting Across a Page,’ Kunstmuseum Basel, 2022. Art © The Easton Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society, New York. Photo: © Kunstmuseum Basel, Jonas Hänggi

Installation view, ‘Louise Bourgeois x Jenny Holzer: The Violence of Handwriting Across a Page,’ Kunstmuseum Basel, 2022. Art © The Easton Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society, New York. Photo: © Kunstmuseum Basel, Jonas Hänggi

SF: What did she think of your work?

JH: I don’t know what or if she thought of my work. I would receive Bourgeois art holiday presents, and I found that generally encouraging.

SF: Your artistic work is often described as conceptual, whereas Louise Bourgeois’ approach was very biographical, psychological. What do you two have in common? Would you say she influenced your work, your worldview?

JH: I’m a part-time latter-day conceptualist only, who is repressed but whose past and psyche feed certain of my artworks. There are obvious differences and some similarities here between Louise and me. The quality of Bourgeois’ oeuvre sets a standard that perhaps is impossible and certainly is intimidating, but I identify with her work ethic, and with her suicidal tendencies. That Bourgeois spilled guts recalls everyone’s semi-inescapable past, and mine to me. Louise’s representations of bodies and body parts bitch-slaps me, as I am inclined to think, in a run-on: what body I have no body it’s great to be sans meat I want no bones anywhere near non-me. The complete Bourgeois meat package and her chronic excellence have challenged and lit me, despite my vegetarianism.

SF: You are both artists, women and mothers. One of your best-known works, ‘Mother and Child,’ which you showed at the Venice Biennale in 1990, dealt with your feelings and fears after the birth of your daughter. How important is the topic motherhood for your and Louise Bourgeois’ artistic practice?

JH: The mama subject is enormous relative to the relationships with our mothers, and to mothering. The topic is relevant for many females—understatement. Louise was overt and relentless in her mother show-and-tell, but I’m just now thinking about what I would say to my mother were she alive. Happily, my daughter delivers—express—what she thinks.

SF: Is it something you often talked about?

JH: No we didn’t, as I’m not much of a talker. I was raised with, ‘It’s better to be seen than heard.’ Maybe that advice—from my mother—was the recipe for creating a visual artist (it’s better to see than be heard?) who sneaked language. My mother didn’t need to tell me to keep quiet about what goes on, as that was absolute, ironclad. Bourgeois’ habit of spilling beans inspires. I often have to assume an assortment of identities to say what I think or worry.

SF: How would you describe Louise Bourgeois’ concept of womanhood, in how far was she shaped by a Freudian family constellation? What was her own perspective on the family?

JH: May I provide fragments of Bourgeois’ writing on the sexes, things Freudian, and the family, that could do justice to these questions, as I can’t? I can say there are plenty breasts and bellies in Louise’s work, as well as hacked penises.

MY MOTHER IS WHAT I AM

MY FATHER IS WHAT I WANT

LET’S THINK ABOUT THE BEDS YOU HAVE KNOWN

YOU ARE A SNAKE BECAUSE YOU ARE AFRAID OF SNAKES

ASHAMED LIKE A FOX CAUGHT BY A HEN

CONCENTRIC I WOULD LIKE TO BE

MR. NO THANK YOU

WHEN HE TALKS IT SMELLS OF SEMEN

LET US TALK AGAIN OF THE REPTILE COCK

MY HUNGER OF THE PAST DAYS WAS A DESIRE TO CASTRATE

MY COCK IS NOT BEAUTIFUL

TO EAT TO KILL TO DEVOUR TO COME

THE RAGE TO KNOW

THE INTOLERABLE IS MY CLIMATE [1]

The intolerable is a climate we share, and I’ll cop to the rage to know.

Louise Bourgeois in her home on 20th Street, New York, 2004. © The Easton Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society, New York. Photo: Pouran Esrafily

‘LOUISE BOURGEOIS X JENNY HOLZER PROJECTIONS,’ 2022. Light projection, Alte Universität, Basel, Switzerland. Text excerpted from Louise Bourgeois’ personal writings, used with permission of the Louise Bourgeois Archive and © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society, New York / © 2022 Jenny Holzer, Artists Rights Society. Photo: Mark Niedermann

Louise Bourgeois ‘exerted herself beyond endurance, beat odds, and didn’t screw up her work. Her work is magnificent. That’s her artistic legacy, and I’m inclined to believe this is an inherently political gift.’—Jenny Holzer

SF: What did Louise Bourgeois think of the feminist movement of the ’70s?

JH: I know of an early Bourgeois sculpture named ‘C.O.Y.O.T.E (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics)’ (originally 1947–49; renamed in 1979). This piece was realized in response to the work of Margo St. James, who agitated and helped provide for sex workers’ rights and sex workers’ care.

SF: Your artistic practice from the late ’70s onwards has focused on the delivery of words and ideas in public spaces, on billboards, projections on buildings, LEDs, etc. You were a member of the Colab collective, your text series ‘Lustmord’ was a response to the war in Yugoslavia, later on you used declassified U.S. Army documents from the war in Iraq for your works—would you agree that your work is more political?

JH: At times my activities and certain artworks can be political. It’s easier for me to represent what happens to people as a consequence of politics than to stay with the stubborn fact of being incarnate. I try to include good art practices, subtle or not, in political efforts because that’s a worthy challenge. Good art makes agitprop more effective.

SF: Do you believe art can change society?

JH: Art can influence people certainly, and can effect change, but when you’re in a necessary hurry don’t rely solely on art given the challenges presented by dictators, grifters, warlords, money launderers, arms dealers, and short-sighted politicians. In a just world reprehensible people would be required to clean up after themselves.

Of course, art has the right to exist as its unencumbered self apart from politics, and if and when an artist wishes, art can be a workhorse and a warhorse.

SF: Did Bourgeois believe in the political power of art?

JH: She was demonstrably alive to the predicament, the tragedy, the inexplicably unjust, infernal, and often crummy job of being female. She spun, repeated, recounted, and reworked representations of the ladies’ life. Bourgeois was compelled to manifest. She exerted herself beyond endurance, beat odds, and didn’t screw up her work. Her work is magnificent. That’s her artistic legacy, and I’m inclined to believe this is an inherently political gift.

I learned that while Bourgeois was a practicing feminist—she participated in roundtables and protests—she understandably was concerned about having her art dismissed as topical, narrow, and without lasting transcendent value. I offer that in the right hands—think Goya—the political and great art are best friends. I’d put Bourgeois hereabouts.

SF: You also defied the idea of presenting art on museum walls. How will you present Bourgeois’ work at the exhibition in Basel?

JH: The exhibition will concentrate on installation in places. I have taken liberties in composing hangs for certain galleries so that the impression of the whole space will be new and hopefully engaging. It still should be possible to enjoy individual Bourgeois pieces and read singular texts—and one can marvel at her prodigious output. Bourgeois’ house can read as installation, so this was an influence. There may be a street art legacy here from me, too, behind installations that aim to surprise people, so they’ll stop and stare.

Louise Bourgeois, The Destruction of the Father, 1974 © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society, New York. Collection Glenstone Museum, Potomac, MD. Photo: Johee Kim

SF: Will the exhibition expand to the public space?

JH: Yes, Bourgeois’ text will stream along the electronic display on the museum’s facade, and there will be light projections of her writing around the city and on the museum’s face. A Bourgeois augmented-reality app will let people take Louise’s writing everywhere they wish, as well as frighten museum visitors with spooky versions of the already terrifying ‘Destruction of the Father.’

SF: You will also work with the collection of the museum.

JH: I will, with great pleasure and gratitude.

SF: Where do you place Bourgeois in art history?

JH: An idea for a historical placement in the museum was to site the pink fuzzy-wuzzy bodies of Bourgeois’ ‘Three Horizontals’ (1998) with Holbein’s ‘The Dead Christ in the Tomb’ (1521–22). Here was masterpiece with masterpiece. When this marriage proved impossible, we went for a juxtaposition of ‘Arched Figure No. 3’ (1997) with Holbein’s lateral Jesus.

SF: Bourgeois’ life and work has its focus on the 20th century, the century of modernism, the century of Freud. In how far do you think the 21st century can relate to her work? What did she anticipate?

JH: I believe it’s less what she anticipated and more that she identified and tirelessly represented essentials. The essentials endure.

SF: Louise Bourgeois died in 2010. When you think of her, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?

JH: I think of her pretty mind, most able hands, her play and fury, the endurance, and her wry eyes. Then there’s the universe of work.

Louise Bourgeois x Jenny Holzer: The Violence of Handwriting Across a Page’ is on view at Kunstmuseum Basel, 19 February – 15 May 2022.

[1] Fragments from Louise Bourgeois’ personal writings are excerpted from multiple texts, all courtesy the Louise Bourgeois Archive and © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society, New York.

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