Sculptor Louise Bourgeois died on Memorial Day at age 98. Her death brings back memories of the feminist artists’ consciousness-raising group I joined in SoHo in the early 1970’s. Bourgeois was ever present, an eminence we younger artists all admired. She hadn’t yet come into the full flower of her later fame, but she showed us what was possible.
Those were heady times in the New York art world, especially for women, who were organizing and demanding exhibition opportunities on a par with men. Discrimination was still rampant when I came of age as an artist in the 1960’s; more than one of my male cronies advised me to give up art and concentrate on baby-making. In the 1970’s, with the darkening of flower power and the birth of feminist groups like Red Stockings, we women began fighting back.
That consciousness-raising group with Bourgeois gave birth to some tangible offspring in the form of inspired new artwork. For the “Erotic Garden” group show at the Women’s Interart Center on Manhattan’s West Side, I created a geodesic dome ten feet in diameter, lined with reflective mylar and shaped canvases depicting couples engaged in explicitly erotic activities, along with images of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust and Iggy Pop shirtless on hands and knees howling “I want to be your dog.” The floor was pink polyester plush, and several people could convene inside at one time to enjoy the view.
After the Erotic Garden bloomed its last, I reassembled the geodesic dome inside my loft as an alternative bedroom complete with mattress. There I entertained my husband-to-be. Within two years, I was a wife and mother. Another two years and I became an art therapist. My life took different turns.
Meanwhile, Louise Bourgeois continued to create. Although she’d been a serious artist since her twenties, her work remained relatively unknown until she was 70 years old, when the Museum of Modern Art gave her a solo retrospective. The year was 1982. In the 30 years following her debut as a sculptor in 1949, she’d had only four one-person shows, but her international reputation grew exponentially throughout her senior years.
Bourgeois used a wide variety of materials to address themes of the human body and a full gamut of emotions including anger, betrayal and fear. In the New York Times obituary (June 1, 2010), Holland Cotter describes one major work:
Her nightmarish tableau of 1974, “The Destruction of the Father,” for example, is a table in a stagily lighted recess, which holds an arrangement of breast-like bumps, phallic protruberances and other biomorphic shapes in soft-looking latex that suggest the sacrificial evisceration of a body, the whole surrounded by big, crude mammillary forms. Ms. Bourgeois has suggested as the tableau’s inspiration a fantasy in which a pompous father . . . is pulled onto the table by other family members, dismembered and gobbled up.
To think the petite, self-effacing woman from my consciousness-raising group was creating this work at the very time I knew her – and to think she continued inventing such impassioned projects into advanced old age. Bourgeois was still creating art up till the time of her death. According to the Associated Press, she had just finished some new pieces when she suffered a heart attack on May 29th.
On the far side of 60, I often fear I’ve passed my prime, but the life and career of Louise Bourgeois are a moving testament to the fact that the best years in a creative life may be those of advanced age.