I have always loved Louise Bourgeois and her work. My second job after college was working the front desk at Robert Miller Gallery, in the late 80’s, when they were uptown on 57th street in the Fuller Building, Cheim and Read were the directors, and they represented Louise. She would come in with her assistant Jerry Gorovoy, and I would have conversations with them, especially during a time when she was in a Who’s Who directory, which she took very seriously, and I sat down with her (and talked with her on the phone) about the exacting detail of her pages of career. I was always impressed with her being a great “long distance runner”: I always tell students that to be a great artist, you always have to best the best thing you have ever done, and keep doing this until you get really old and then you can ice cream and die like Louise Bourgeois”! Of course, Louise kept making incredible work all of her life, always challenging herself and what she could do (I’m not sure she ever settled for ice cream!) until she passed away. Most importantly, for me, she is a great Post Post-modern master, as she made work that was always “about something” (and far more complex than of her famous nightmare of her father eating her, like Saturn eating his young, and/or based on her father’s affair with their maid, which is often what her work is essentialized into being about). I believe she began each work with a motivational cue, thinking about her family and so on, but then allowed it to be a meditation about this and so many other things. Coming from surrealism and the great age of psychoanalysis, Freud and Jung, she also had a penchant for the unconscious, and at the same time had incredible formal skills, so the results of her sculptures and images were potent, both in how you could look at them for a long time, but also how you could think about them for a long time, too. Psychoanalysts would say it was about the father, or psychoanalysis, feminists would say it was about feminism, and so on, and while I don’t think Louise ever intended her work to be about any or all of this specifically, their “noodles would stick on the cabinet” as they would all be right—the work is so rich that it, like all great work, means so many different things to different people and the interpretations hold up as the art itself is so complex and open-ended, but directed in form, content, and attitudinal gesture.
I used to bring my NYU students at the end of their senior year (usually on Easter Sunday!) to Louise’s salons, as a sort of baptism into the artworld. I felt that if you were in Paris during the latter years of Giacometti, you would visit him with plaster in his hair in his bohemian abode, and Louise’s world was like that for our time. She was a conduit between modernism and post-modernism, a bridge between the old New York School and now. She lived in a Chelsea Townhouse on 20th Street, and you could just call her up on the phone and ask her if you could come—she might make you sing her a song (!?) or something, but ultimately would say “come at 3 on Sunday” and hang up. And sometimes I would also just come on my own. Her place was old and somewhat disheveled, with yellowing reviews and posters on the bulletin board behind her, with the paint and plaster peeling, but you could tell she was well taken care of—there was never a spec of dust anywhere. These afternoons were “exquisitely boring” in that they could last for hours—they would finally kick us out at about 7:00 in the evening, and people would become woozy drinking the aperitifs and warm alcohol and soda people would bring (in addition to chocolate, which Louise loved), and one by one you would come up to her little table and present your work to her. She always had an “Ed McMahon” to her “Johnny Carson”—sometimes it would be famous curators like Robert Storr, sometimes one of her sons, sometimes someone you never heard of, and the “salon” itself was populated by sometimes famous artists, sometimes janitors, sometimes curators and critics wanting to visit with her (she would make them come on Sundays occasionally if they wanted to consort with her). She sometimes made people cry—although I don’t think she was intentionally ever really “mean”, but could be dismissive if she didn’t “get” the work. But often she would engage—this was her way I think of continuing to teach, in addition to having contact with the outside creative world, and if she would exclaim “very good!” it would send you to the moon for a week! I loved having her approval, and would always be pensive and apprehensive in a good, excited way in bringing my work to her (and it was also my way of sharing my work with my students, whom I never discussed my work with usually). She wanted the others to interact, although we seldom did, in the spirit of a “real salon”, as we were all hanging on her words and reactions. She was old, but her pilot light was still very much on—you could tell with the twinkle in her eye and her quick wit to respond to things—she really was engaged, although she would barely get to the table, navigating with her hands the counter, etc., to it (I don’t think she wanted people to see her use her walker), and sometimes, like in this picture, her housecoat could be stained and she didn’t always look great, but her bohemian self (I remember seeing her and Jerry at J and R once, in their long black coats, looking like they came from the 19 century in a 21 century technological world). But I don’t think she cared much—money, etc., didn’t mean much when she finally came into her own (although fame and respect did, I suppose!), and hopefully we don’t have to wait until the 70’s to finally get the recognition we deserve, but sometimes this helps?! In Louise’s case, I think when she did finally achieve status and wealth, the money didn’t mean much to her, and she just kept challenging herself to make great artworks, which I love too for their psychological meditation and dimension—I think she made work because it was the modus operandi of her life—she was a monk for art and this was her world and way of expressing herself and living, inseparable from her being in her day to day life. I realized in painting this, a picture from my own photo that I asked her if I could take to paint a portrait from, that the world of her desk is really a cosmology of her work. From the Hugo Ball poster she designed (which serendipitously was also at the Whitney Biennial, reproduced almost exactly in the same place, if there was a laser beam from its placement to the Semiotexte wall where they put it in the wallpaper design of their installation), to the balls, mirrors, etc., that were reproduced hugely in her sculptures, to the red ink on the table, left over I suppose from her insomnia drawings. Also, when painting this, I realized her hands on the table resembled her famous marble sculptures with hands on rough surfaces, and her twisted housecoat resembles after the fact of painting it, in my mind, her hanging sculptural effigies.
After I painted the picture, I sent images of it to her studio, and they mentioned that she saw it and approved, to my great relief. I first exhibited the work in a show at Derek Eller entitled “Good Leaders, Endangered Species, Ships at Sea” as I felt she was a great leader and model for what a great artist should be, and a later incarnation of the exhibit (called Good Leaders, Endangered Species) that was installed at Broadway Windows, on 8th and Broadway as a part of NYU to the public. She died during the time of this exhibit, and I hope this ultimately was a respectful homage to this great lady and artist, who in the painting seems to be pointing to the beyond of the door, perhaps symbolizing the afterlife, where she is now immortal through her great works and legacy that will hopefully endure through the ages. I’m sure, too, that anyone who attended the salons will never forget their experience, being in the realm of this Post Post Modern Master.
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Louise Bourgeois, Welcoming Hands, Paris
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Louise Bourgeois, Tate Museum installation
Alice Neel is one of my favorite painters of all time, and I have always cherished the portrait she did of Warhol, post shooting, that exposed a real tenderness and vulnerability of t his great cool genius. I was thinking very specifically of this work when I was painting my picture of Louise—I think great portraits bring out the inner personality of the person they are portraying, and hope I was able to do this when painting Bourgeois, in the emulation of how Neel painted Warhol.
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Alice Neel, Andy Warhol, 1970. Collection of the Whitney Museum.