Louise Bourgeois remains best known for her spider sculptures, cell installations, and uncanny sewn figures, but print- and book-making sustained her practice for decades. Beginning with tightly composed, precise, and Surrealist-inspired etchings and engravings in the 1940s, through the illustrated books and fabric prints she created in the ensuing decades, to the airy and virtually abstract drypoint prints and etchings she created in the last decade of her life, the printing process enabled her to work through and develop some of the core themes and symbols of her career.
The Museum of Modern Art owns about 3,000 printed works by Bourgeois, and a selection of 265 of them are on view in the new exhibition Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, alongside contextualizing drawings, paintings, sculptures, and, naturally, a couple of bronze spiders.
Curated by longtime Bourgeois scholar and former Chief Curator of MoMA’s Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, Deborah Wye, the exhibition is organized thematically and chronologically. Early rooms focus on architecture and abstraction, leading into sections on the body, the motif of the spiral, works on fabric, imagery inspired by nature, and other subjects that span different decades and groups of work. The bulk of the show is concentrated on the museum’s third floor, though its loose chronological sequencing culminates with the series of large-scale prints from 2006 to 2009 and two spider sculptures installed dramatically in the second floor atrium. Moving through the rooms, one gets a sense of Bourgeois’s growing comfort with printmaking, her increasingly daring experimentation, and the central place prints eventually took in her work from 1990 onward.
Wye’s groupings emphasize not only how Bourgeois would continually revisit decades-old ideas and images, but also how printmaking allowed her to use a single plate to experiment with different inks, colors, and embellishments. In the first room of the show, which showcases images of playful and personified skyscrapers, four versions of the print “Pivotage Difficile” (“Difficult Steering,” 1947) installed side-by-side show dramatic differences from one version to the next, with a fuzzy pillar gradually sprouting alongside the crystalline tower on the image’s right side. Later, an alcove is devoted to her prints from the ’90s reclaiming the figure of Saint Sebastian as the feminist martyr “Sainte Sébastienne,” all extrapolated from a watercolor she painted in 1947 — this is also on view. Here, we see a pair of drypoint prints from 1994 in which the saint’s figure is filled with hand-stamped monograms: in one version, an elaborate “LB” for the artist’s father, Louis Bourgeois; in the other, a starkly modernist, sans serif “LB” for the artist herself. As in all her work, family trauma — like, in this instance, her father leaving to fight in World War I when Bourgeois was just three years old — and psychological hardships are ever-present in her prints.
“Her motivation was really her emotional struggles,” Wye said during a press preview at MoMA on Tuesday. “She called her art her ‘guarantee of sanity.’”
The notion that Bourgeois found balance and clarity through her practice comes across most clearly in the exhibition’s final room on MoMA’s third floor, which pairs her large-scale installation of 14 prints “À l’Infini” (“To Infinity,” 2008) with the suspended, shining bronze sculpture “Arch of Hysteria” (1993). The sculpture, elegant and photogenic though it is, articulates a state of paralyzing and torturous tension, while the prints — made just two years before Bourgeois died at age 98 — have a looseness and fluidity that evokes comfort, openness, and resolution. As its title suggests, this exhibition adds more depth to many of the themes and struggles that shaped Bourgeois’s decades-long career, like the tension between the physical and the psychological or conflicting desires for security and danger. And though her prints don’t pack quite the same blockbuster power as her sculptures, anyone who’s been captivated by Bourgeois’s work will find great value in leafing through the many layers of her printed works.