A Sculptor Whose Work Confronts Her Past

`I'M not interested in history. I'm interested in life,'' sculptor Louise Bourgeois says. With her steel-gray hair in a long braid cascading down her back, this petite woman seems an unlikely giant of postwar art. With her unremitting ambition and piercing vision, Ms. Bourgeois creates art with a knockout punch, addressing the most potent issues of today.

``Bourgeois is now considered one of our most important living artists,'' says Charlotta Kotik, curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum. Kotik organized the exhibition of Bourgeois's work at the Venice Bienniale. The choice of Bourgeois to represent the United States at this most prestigious international survey of avant-garde art confirms her work's status as among the world's most provocative.

For most of her 50-year career, Bourgeois worked in relative obscurity. The women's movement, which focused overdue attention on female artists, at last caused the spotlight to shine her way. Bourgeois's first major retrospective, held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1982 when she was 71, was a pivotal event in her career. The display of 40 years of work established the range, depth, and power of her sculpture, winning wide attention in this country and abroad.

Since then, Bourgeois has created her boldest pieces. ``It's amazing,'' says Deborah Wye, the Museum of Modern Art curator who organized the retrospective, ``that in the last 10 years a woman from the age of 71 to 81 is making sculpture at the forefront of art today. She's not an old master but right on the edge, making discoveries in art that are absolutely vital.''

One reason Bourgeois's art was underappreciated for so long, Wye adds, is that, ``her subjects are painful to deal with.'' The rest of the art world didn't catch up until recently, when artists abandoned concerns with form to focus on content. The sculptor has an enormous influence on younger artists.

Bourgeois's sculpture defies exact classification. She oscillates between abstract and figurative styles, with the only constant being her fixation on psychological themes. Deeply autobiographical, Bourgeois's art embodies in endlessly surprising forms the nature of sexual identity, the individual's relation to others, and the need to expose, then heal, inner wounds.

In the 1940s, Bourgeois carved tall, thin, stalk-like forms with knobby heads, always in groups yet leaning away from contact with others. The wooden stems called ``totems'' have a shy, vulnerable quality, as if unable to support themselves - they are reluctant members of an inescapable group. In the '50s her sculpture consisted of stacked metal slabs so precariously balanced that they give the impression of vertebrae about to collapse. She created ``lairs'' in the '60s, through the imagery of nests or holes that are both secure shelters and menacing traps. In the 1970s her sculptures became more erotic and confrontational.

THE Venice exhibition features work done since 1984, including room-size installations shown for the first time. Bourgeois pioneered installations in the 1940s. Her enclosures suggest a private world that both invites and forbids the viewer's entrance.

At Venice, Bourgeois shows four installations called ``cells.'' In the first interview in which the artist explicitly discusses the meaning of the Bienniale work, Bourgeois explains, ``It is a biological cell, and it also has overtones of punishment, lack of freedom, and the need to be free.''

One work, entitled ``Choisy,'' depicts her childhood home in France (she came to New York to work in 1938). With a guillotine blade hanging above the marble building, the tableau represents how ``the present destroys the past,'' she says, adding, ``You cannot find your past again. It has been massacred, so you become a prisoner of that mysterious past, waging a losing fight.''

Bourgeois's art can be read as a series of ghost stories, an attempt to purge the guilt and rage of her childhood. Born in Paris, the artist helped the family business of restoring tapestries. While family members repaired tattered fabric, Bourgeois saw the bonds that knit them together unravel. Louise was the favorite child of her father, a philanderer, and felt betrayed by him. ``My father judged the world with his emotions,'' she says, making him ``a dangerous creature.''

``I have an interest in putting down and destroying pompous father figures,'' Bourgeois says.

Although much of her sculpture is motivated by desire for revenge, a healing balm flows beneath surface pain. ``The gift of the artist,'' she insists, is ``access to what makes us tick deep in the unconscious.'' The artist dredges up unconscious sources of distress and assigns them visual form. What gives her work its voltage is that she works out her anxieties through art. Her no-holds-barred engagement with disturbing issues transfers an explosive charge to her work.

Bourgeois wrestles with art on a primal, not intellectual, level. She employs what she calls acute ``extrasensorial'' antennae or ``vibes'' that penetrate to a deep level of mystery. The fruit of this subterranean journey is art, encoded but accessible to the viewer. ``You have to be permeable,'' Bourgeois says, ``to give yourself and let yourself be moved.''

She terms the catharsis experienced by those who understand her visual language ``an altered state,'' which helps them deal with pain. When it succeeds in moving others, she calls her work ``an optimistic statement.''

``Art is a guarantee of sanity,'' Bourgeois says. ``Every morning I get up raring to go. I am more productive than ever.''

IN her art, Bourgeois seeks an equilibrium between the extremes of unbridled emotion and ``sane'' rationality. The key is ``balance.''

The installation ``Cell (Glass Spheres and Hands)'' deals with the student-mentor relationship, Bourgeois explains. The installation includes fragile glass spheres on chairs that encircle a table. On the table, a pair of hands (carved from pink marble) lie clasped together. The scene expresses Bourgeois's view, she says, of the ``helplessness of the teacher,'' wringing his hands in despair because he cannot penetrate the enclosed globes of his pupils' minds.'' The message must resonate within the pupil for his lesson to be absorbed. As Bourgeois says, ``Only if they love you, will they learn.''

The work is part of the continuum of pieces which ``deconstructs the macho,'' she says. ``Exorcism takes place because I make fun.'' She quotes La Rochefoucauld's dictum, ``Le ridicule tue'' - ridicule kills. ``If you make a person ridiculous, you've got him.'' Triumph over tyranny is the seed of her art.

Far from slowing down, Bourgeois has multiplied her efforts. As the sculptor puts it, ``There is so much to say. Lots of people say there is nothing to say. It's absurd. There is everything to say. I feel time is always running short.''

Fortunately for the public, which is just catching up with her groundbreaking vision, Bourgeois adds, ``I'm a long-distance runner.''

* The Venice Bienniale continues through Oct. 10.

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