Welcome to Louise Bourgeois' Wonderful Nightmare

A Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum is an invitation to enter a stifling, oppressive world – but a wonderful one, for all that

Artwork by French artist Louise Bourgeois titled "Cell X" which is on display as part of the "Twosome" exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on September 6, 2017.
JACK GUEZ / AFP

1.

In the small, dark confessional, on the cushion that lies on a low wooden chair, is the inscription “Je t’aime.” I peer inside, stick my head in, and nearly die of fear. My heart sinks. I think of a girl whose father sleeps with her. Love of the torturer is the foundation of torture.

Within the iron cages in the lower gallery of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, I see four chairs facing each other, three green glass spheres and one small blue one on them. A round mirror, the kind that’s used for shaving, placed on a shelf, hanging from the metal grille. In another cage I see a scene that recurs repeatedly in the work of Louise Bourgeois – in stuffed, sewn, cloth dolls, in bodies of iron and plastic, in sculptural objects – the bottoms of feet that are spread apart, and on top of them, the soles of feet of steel. The sexual relations.

2.

Even though this exhibition of Bourgeois’ works revolves around the kinetic installation “Twosome” (a “train” that enters and withdraws from a tunnel on a track), the other works, done in other materials, are the ones that engulf the gaze.

Bleeding blocs of genius, in every material. Pure art. Scenes of birth with dolls, with fluid works of painting. The metal spider “Maman” (“Mother”), which has been exhibited in different sizes in different places, is wisely placed in a kind of inner room within the exhibition hall. In fact, it’s a version of it – doubled and called “Spider Couple.”

The curation really gives Bourgeois to the audience. All out. Fifty-two works, from 1947 to 2010. I looked for but didn’t find the important installation “The Destruction of the Father” (1974). On the other hand, two early works in wood are striking and sharp.

3.

From "Twosome," a Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Elad Sarig

Bourgeois’ sculpture in organic materials is a slaughter of chopped limbs. Something living. Violent and strong. Even when she “sews” or “embroiders” (her parents owned a business for mending expensive tapestries), it’s not soft “woman’s work,” but a dense core of horror and delight.

The rationality, methodicalness and aestheticism of the exhibition (though it’s overcrowded), which was curated by Suzanne Landau together with Jerry Gorovoy – who was Bourgeois’ muse, factotum and handyperson for three decades, until her death at age 98 in May 2010 – work well as a counterpoint to the richness, content and power of the works that swallow the observer into the artist’s world. Into her psyche.

She is a mother of invention. The mother of inventions, the bad one. This is not an exhibition for children. It’s not intended to protect and to pleasure. It’s intended for adults. It’s intended for me.

4.

Bourgeois liked to hang things, so they could be seen from below. Hanging is a basic act of modern art. For example, “Fillette” (1968), a phallus cast in latex. She had her picture taken with “Fillette” tucked under her arm like a baguette in the studio of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (who knew her) ahead of her 1982 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In the wake of that show, Bourgeois, who had until then been an artists’ artist in New York, became a world-renowned artist.

She’s a woman who worked in and touched every conceivable material. Without limits. It’s impossible to imagine the work in liquid stains that flow from Marlene Dumas’ women, for example, without Bourgeois, just as it’s impossible to imagine Jeff Koons’ silvery coils without her.

In the Tel Aviv show, “Fillette” hangs at the entrance next to “Janus Fleuri,” named for the two-faced god – one of several more easily digestible Janus representations that Bourgeois sculpted. It’s a kind of reproductive organ within a severed female pelvis. Monstrous, material, heavy, slit, as though on the verge of opening wide.

I feel like I’m in a butcher shop. The cumulative effect of Bourgeois’ deep-stifling world makes me regret all the plaudits I heaped on earlier, lesser exhibitions. And because I’m a woman, the birth scenes she presents work on me twice over. Attract and astonish. I gave birth myself. For me it was pleasant, enjoyable. For her, something else.

From "Twosome," a Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Elad Sarig

5.

Louise Bourgeois lived from Christmas 1911 until our own time, 2010. She met Gorovoy in 1980 – he was younger than her own sons – and, with him, constantly augmented the scale of her installations, complementing the augmentation of her potency in the world. She famously underwent psychoanalysis and her objects – figurative though they may be – are also abstractions of the basic situation of analysis. In this sense, Bourgeois remained a modernist in a world that morphed into postmodern and also post-Freudian.

The works, apart from their connection to representations of art, are representations of psychic themes at the root of psychoanalysis. Blocs of energy that describe the mental life amid the carnality. The prosthetic legs, strapped into strips of leather, in cages, which tell about her disabled sister, are an aspect of the carnality. Those looking at what is happening. Those who participate. And those who don’t.

6.

At night, after that morning persuaded a grandmother visiting the museum not to take her 5-year-old granddaughter to view the “dolls” and not to observe the observation of sexual intercourse or the ripping out of birth, I tried to obtain from the Mapplethorpe Foundation the portrait of Bourgeois with “Fillette” tucked under her arm. A foundation representative replied immediately in a polite email, but wanted $250 to republish the image in the newspaper.

It’s a photograph known for its sense of humor – a rarity for Bourgeois and Mapplethorpe both. Bourgeois was zealous and competitive, ambitious and unbounded in her talent. In her understanding of the theoretical, organizing and concrete place of the phallus in the world, and the range of her artistic ability, she outdid even Mapplethorpe.

The exhibition catalog contains a timeline of her long life, but contains holes – for example, with regard to her response to the death in 1990 of the son she adopted in his boyhood. I look at her picture, taken in the 1950s during a gondola cruise in Venice with her three sons and art-historian husband, Robert Goldwater (who died in 1973).

As is known, she had her own gallery, a studio, admirers, honorary doctorates from, among others, Yale University. She worked from the age of 11. Worked all the time. Gorovoy, who was the model for another work of hers (not in the Tel Aviv show), “Arch of Hysteria,” in which his lean nude body is bent backward, headless, said in interviews she had a pathological need to work.

Returning for a second visit, I lift my head again to look at “Fillette” and then at the slit of Janus, and ignore the noise of the machine from “Twosome” on the way to “The Couple,” the coiled, silvery, air-dangling sculpture in which two bodies become two knolls, and think that Jeff Koons, too, was also her son. They all were.