As striking as the sculptures are, you’ll notice as you tiptoe through “Louise Bourgeois: Freud’s Daughter” on the second floor of New York’s Jewish Museum that in small frames — sometimes opposite massive, troubling mixed-media works, sometimes alongside more compressed, whimsical pieces — are missives that fall somewhere between reporting and confessions.
These 80 pieces, which have never been seen before in the United States, are Bourgeois’s psychoanalytical writings — basically, introspective homework assignments from her shrink.
The French-born artist, who died in 2010 at the age of 98, spent the bulk of her career in New York. In 1951 she entered analysis with Dr. Leonard Cammer, a giant of mid-century American psychiatry, then with Dr. Henry Lowenfeld, whom she saw for 30 years. Lowenfeld was a devotee of Sigmund Freud’s, so, no, you aren’t crazy if you look at some of the 40 pieces collected in this new exhibit and think, “My God, that’s supposed to be her father’s penis, isn’t it?”
Bourgeois was not Jewish, but her husband, art collector and professor Robert Goldwater was, and at least one of her living sons identifies as such, too. Freud, of course, was Jewish. Thus we have a sufficient peg for The Jewish Museum, which houses an outstanding cache of Judaica, plus rotating galleries of historical and modern art — either by Jews or concerning the Jewish experience — in the dizzyingly gorgeous Warburg mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
A loose sheet of writing by Louise Bourgeois, now on display at The Jewish Museum in New York. (The Easton Foundation/ Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society, New York)
And that’s good enough for me. The show is up now and will remain so through September 12, and I recommend it as a summertime destination for anyone looking for something offbeat or disturbing. I know this might not be what you are supposed to say about high art, but the truth of the matter is that this isn’t just a museum exhibit, it’s a house of horrors. Bring your teenage kids and watch them freak out at enormous suspended scrota (that is what that is, right?) next to a tableau of breast-like forms and mutton bones bathed in red light that would make Dario Argento quiver.
Bourgeois’s most famous works, those nightmarish, spiky spiders, are not on display — but there’s a small one hidden in the corner of one the largest of the 40 pieces in the exhibit: “Passage Dangereux,” from 1997. As my eyes roamed the strange collection of objects inside an enormous metal cage, I cringed at the eeriness of false limbs, hovering wooden chairs, weird glass globes filled with snail-like things, and an electric chair. I then actually gasped when I glimpsed the horrifying arachnid so close to my foot.
Get me the hell out of here, I thought.
But where was I, exactly? Curator Philip Larratt-Smith, who is in the process of publishing a book of Bourgeois’s psychoanalytical writings with Princeton University Press, is surely trying to recreate the agonies of this troubled woman’s mind. He tells me that she struggled with Freud’s theories over the years, and was even known to make jokes about psychoanalysis, but ultimately seemed very dedicated to the process.
Text throughout the exhibit offers details about the various phases that are core to Freud’s belief system (side note: if it’s been a while since you’ve read any of this stuff, it’s kinda wacky!) with the conclusion that an artist can not, or maybe should not, ever conquer the Oedipal complex.
So what does this mean in terms of art? It means exploring nightmarish topics like beheadings and castration, and images that connote menstrual blood and umbilical cords. But not in a gross-out way — more like an, “Okay, this is interesting” kind of way. At least to me.
Artist Louise Bourgeois. (YouTube)
I was really taken with a small 1999 piece called “Torment,” with a black figurine dangling on string beneath what looks like a strange jungle gym-like gallows in front of a concrete slab. Beneath it is etched the phrase, “To Unravel A Torment You Have To Begin Somewhere.” If I could explain to you why this sent a chill down my spine then it wouldn’t be art.
Nearby are some of Bourgeois’s writings about giving birth and the cutting of the umbilical cord. “I am the waste/I am the cutting” she writes, quite possibly moments after waking from a troubling dream. Elsewhere is one of those ratty “husband pillows,” worn and frayed, with a vaginal hole stitched in the center, soft fabric piled on top like used placenta. It makes you uneasy, but it isn’t just shock value.
Before Bourgeois entered Freudian analysis, when she was caring for her dying mother, she caught her father having an affair with her tutor, who was only a few years older than she was (Bourgeois wouldn’t have been older than 20 or 21 at the time). This act of psychological violence reverberated throughout her long life. The least we can do is walk the galleries to explore how she dealt with it, even if it definitely veers into unpleasant territory.
As Philip Larratt-Smith reminded me as I made for the elevators, we’re all coming out of a pandemic year and an introspective time. Bourgeois’s retreat into her own psychology may resonate now more than ever.
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