I love this time of year- the leaves are changing, pumpkin beer abounds and as it get’s colder my cats get increasingly snugglier. The one snag I always run into, though, is how to really make a statement with my Halloween decorations? In the past, we’ve always been in apartments, but now that we’re in a house in a neighborhood that takes Halloween RRRL serious, it’s time to up our game. That’s why I’m thinking of combining my love of creepies, arachnids and bad ass women from history to create a tribute to Louise Bourgeois- something like this little number:
Louise Bourgeois, nicknamed the spider woman for her giant installations, lived for nearly 100 years. She saw, participated in and outlived the Modern Art Movement. She founded confessional art as a serious task worthy of notice. She raised a family and generously shared her time and wisdom with the next generation of artists.She was a woman who bravely faced her own demons, which feels especially timely during this time of year when many of us turn to thoughts of dark and endings.
Louise was born on Christmas day, in Paris, 1911. Her family, which included a mother, a father and three other siblings, grew up above the tapestry repair shop which they owned. Like most people, Louise’s childhood was complicated. When she was 13, her father had an extended affair with her nanny, which her mother knew about but found easier to ignore. That the affair happened was upsetting enough, but that happened out in the open was infuriating to the young Louise’s sense of justice. She feared and loathed and pitied and loved them both in that way that only family can. These complex and big emotions would come out later in her work.
In 1930, she entered the prestigious Sorbonne to study geometry and math. When asked why she chose math, she responded, “I got peace of mind only through the study of rules nobody could change.” The stability which Louise sought through mathematics was upended in 1932 with the death of her mother. Though a rigorous-ish internet search didn’t yield much about Louise’s thoughts at the time, her actions speak loudly: She left the Sorbonne with artistic ambitions, her father (like many concerned and practical parents from time immemorial) said “Hail no, not paying for that” and Louise (like many dreamy kids from time immemorial) said “tough titties.” She continued to study art at the Sorbonne, where she signed up for classes which needed translators for English students (since, translators were not charged tuition, that smart cookie.) Though she graduated in 1935, Louise never stopped learning- she attended classes in other schools, visited artists’ studios and assisted in exhibitions throughout the city with the intention of learning everything she could. During this time, she met the man who was to be her husband, Robert Goldwater. Goldwater was an art historian and “in between talks about surrealism and the latest trends [we] got married.” If that isn’t the sweetest ‘artnerd meets artnerd’ story, I don’t know what is. The three went on to adopt a child, and have two biological children between 1939 and 1941.
In 1945, Louise had her first solo show (no small feat with 4, 5, and 6 year old boys underfoot), though it would be nearly 40 years before getting major recognition and accolades from the Art world. LB, like a total boss, continued to make work, refine her style and make friends with the American Abstract Artists group.
Louise was expansive in her materials- small intimate watercolors, soft sculpture, installation, big macho bronze and stone creations, towering public art made out of tubing- she was a woman who did not feel tied down to one material or another. Like any artist with a long life and career, her work changed greatly over time. There are a few themes and motifs, though, which stand out (and which warm my heart.) First and foremost was the way in which her work dealt, not with abstract theories about color or capital-P-painting (Clement Greebburg, I’m looking at you with a serious side-eye), but with the messy, gritty, stuff of life. Like my two other besties, Frida and Sylvia*, Louise managed to somehow use her own specific experience to get at bigger, universal Truths. She also frequently used bodily forms. Sometimes they were male, sometimes they were female, sometimes they were classically beautiful and sometimes they were grotesque. Through it all was her honest unflinching approach. This lady had balls.**
In the 1970’s, Louise began teaching formally at many colleges in NYC, including Pratt, Cooper Union, Brooklyn College and in public schools throughout the city (Sidebar: How amazing would it be to have had LB as your middle school art teacher? “Your boyfriend dumped you in passing period? Oh dear, you can use that.”). She also began to hold informal, weekly salons in her home which she called “Sunday bloody Sundays.” These gatherings were open to all, the only rules being that you couldn’t have a cold and you had to bring work- work which she would mercilessly and honestly critique. Supposedly, she started holding these salons because Sunday was the one day her art-assistant took off and she, Louise, was restless. I feel it’s worth pointing out that at this point she was in her 60’s.
At the age when most of society tells us (and especially those of us who are women) to fade into quiet obscurity, Louise was just getting warmed up. She became a member of the Fight Censorship Group (a feminist anti-censorship collective) she was named an officer of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture and was awarded the USA’s National Medal of Arts by Bill Clinton. In 2010, she used her voice and her work to speak up for the LGBT community’s right to marry (proving that young people do not have a monopoly on open-mindedness). And, through it all, Louise continued to write, and to make art and to hold her famous salons (though she did concede to sitting on a pillow in her 90’s so she was high enough to see everyone).
Of all the many things to love about LB, it’s her hunger for knowledge and her generosity in sharing that knowledge with others that warms my educator heart. That’s why this month’s how-to is all about spreading not just love but also rigorous dialog that makes us all better.
How to hold your own Bourgeoisian Salon
- Find a place: To really get the comfy feeling described by those who attended Louise’s salons, meet in someone’s living room.
- Have snacks: Though snacks are never specifically mentioned, I think honesty sits best on a full belly.
- Invite friends (and tell them to bring work!): Whether you put out an open call, like our friend LB, or you invite a small intimate circle of close contacts, I think the key here is to have other people and to make sure everyone has work to share. It’s a way to make everyone feel both kinder to the person being critiqued and less nervous about it being their go (since everyone’s in the same boat).
- Mince no words and offer feedback that is useful to the creator: Have you ever been in an in-progress critique or asked for someone’s opinion and they’re response was “Oh! I like it! It’s really neato!” While we all like to hear nice things, sharing honest and thoughtful critical feedback is not only helpful, it’s a sign of trust and respect. Of course, you don’t want to be negative, that’s just as unhelpful. If you’re not sure how to start, check out the Ladder of Feedback– it’s a protocol made by the fancy pants at Harvard’s Project Zero that helps to scaffold and structure critiques in a way that’s helpful for all parties involved.
Louise Bourgeois was not always happy and she was never described as ‘nice.’ She was passionate, she was joyful, she was serious and she was silly. May you, like Louise find a way to make work (whatever your work is) that feeds your soul and gives you courage enough to tell your story.
Herstories and How-to’s Needs Your Help!
As brilliant and powerful unicorns who read this column, I’d like to know what you’d like to know. Is there a particular lady from history (art or otherwise) who you think everyone should get excited over, or who you want to know more about? My only criteria are threefold:
- The individual identify as a woman (sorry dudes, but you’ve got a little something called ‘nearly all of the Western Canon’ as a consolation prize)
- The particular woman be deceased (easier to research and also narrows things a bit)
- That she be badass in some way. (note: the term ‘bad-ass’ subjective and multifaceted much like ‘Art’ and ‘women.’ Feminism’s about choice.
Let me know! Either in the comments below or in an email to crlynch(at)gmail(dot)com.
- Art 21
- New York Times
*OH HOLY COW how awesome and cathartic would a slumber party with the three of them be?
**Okay, okay, so I know that bravery is not determined by owning a set of outsized testicles. I acknowledge that to say that one ‘has balls’ is sexist and demeaning to us all. I also acknowledge that if there is a penis joke to be made I’m going to make it. Unflinchingly.