5 Fast Facts: Louise Bourgeois

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

1. Legacy

The second daughter of Joséphine and Louis Bourgeois, Louise was named after her father. Though Bourgeois did have a younger brother, she ensured the family’s legacy by giving her three sons her last name rather than that of her husband, Robert Goldwater.

2. It Figures

Bourgeois initially studied mathematics, and it wasn’t until after her mother’s death in 1932 that she decided to pursue art in earnest.

Louise Bourgeois, The Song of the Blacks and the Blues, 1996; Lithograph, woodcut, with hand-coloring on paper, 21 5/16 x 96 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: Members' Acquisition Fund; Art © Louise Bourgeois Trust/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Louise Bourgeois, The Song of the Blacks and the Blues, 1996; Lithograph, woodcut, with hand-coloring on paper, 21 5/16 x 96 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund; Art © Louise Bourgeois Trust/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

3. Itsy Bitsy?

Although spiders provoke fear for some people, Bourgeois recognized their positive qualities and saw their protectiveness reflected in her mother, who was also a weaver. Bourgeois rendered arachnids throughout her long career, including seven sculptures titled Maman (1999) which stand over 30 feet high. These eight-legged giants grace collections around the world.

Louise Bourgeois, Spider III, 1995; Bronze, 19 x 33 x 33 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; Photo by Emily Haight

Louise Bourgeois, Spider III, 1995; Bronze, 19 x 33 x 33 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; Photo by Emily Haight

4. Déjà Vu

Another theme Bourgeois returned to throughout her career was the relationship of a woman to her home. She combined human and architectural forms in the works titled Femme Maison, which translates to “woman house” or “housewife.” These paintings and sculptures appear in her oeuvre from 1945 to 2004.

5. In the Neighborhood

Bourgeois is a subject—as well as an artist—in NMWA’s collection. In SoHo Women Artists (1978), May Stevens represented members of her community based on photographs, including Bourgeois in one of her wearable sculptures.

—Ashley Harris is the associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Women House: Femme Maisons

Questions about a woman’s “place” resonate in our culture, and conventional ideas about the house as a feminine space persist. Global artists in Women House recast conventional ideas about the home through provocative photographs, videos, sculptures, and room-like installations. Louise Bourgeois and Laurie Simmons conceptualize the female body as the archetypal form of home.

Louise Bourgeois, Femme Maison, 1994; White marble, 5 x 12 1/2 x 2 3/4 in.; Collection of Louise Bourgeois Trust; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Photo by Christopher Burke

Louise Bourgeois, Femme Maison, 1994

“Art is not about art. Art is about life, and that sums it up,” said Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911, Paris; d. 2010, New York City), whose traumatic childhood experiences informed much of her work. Bourgeois created her own formal language to express her emotions, returning to the same themes repeatedly throughout her career. One of her most common subjects were nude women whose heads have been replaced by houses, which address themes of domesticity and female identity. She first employed with this motif in the 1940s in a series of paintings titled “Femme Maisons” (women houses).

One of Bourgeois’s women houses on view is a small, snowy marble sculpture showing a woman seemingly stuck within the structure of a home. Her head dips toward the ground and her legs are positioned higher than her head. Her torso and arms are completely hidden, making the figure seem altogether immobile and positioned at what would be an uncomfortable angle.

Laurie Simmons, Walking House, 1989

Laurie Simmons, Walking House, 1989; Chromogenic print, 64 x 46 in.; Collection of Dr. Dana Beth Ardi; Photo courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

Laurie Simmons (b. 1949, New York City) is best known for her eerie and unsettling photographs of anthropomorphized objects, particularly dolls, that explore the relationship between human and object in consumerist culture. Her series “Walking and Lying Objects” (1987–1991) features images of various everyday items fixed atop human legs. The first photograph in the series, Walking Camera I (Jimmy the Camera), features one of Simmons’s friends dressed in a camera costume. For her other photos, she attached doll legs to miniature household objects, including an hourglass, purse, and toilet.

In the large-scale photograph Walking House, a woman appears to have been consumed by a typical suburban home. Her only recognizably human features are her slender legs, which appear to be in motion. Simmons wanted the house on legs to represent an iconic American dream home. She says, “Starting in post-World War II America up to the present, the way a person lives is so identified with who that person is. We live in a blazingly consumer-oriented society, where the things around us control us, and I think these images are about the way a person can be subsumed by what’s around them.”

Both Walking House and Femme Maison conflate the female body with domestic architecture. In each work, the woman is inseparable from the house—both metaphorically and literally.

Visit the museum and explore Women House, on view through May 28, 2018.

—Kali Steinberg is the 2018 spring publications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Not So Itsy Bitsy: Louise Bourgeois

In celebration of NMWA’s 30th anniversary, and inspired by the museum’s focus on contemporary women artists as catalysts for change, Revival illuminates how women working in sculpture, photography, and video use spectacle and scale for expressive effect.

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois’s Topiary, 2006 by work by Anna Gaskell (left) and Deborah Paauwe (right); Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois’s Topiary, 2006, in front of photographs by Anna Gaskell (left) and Deborah Paauwe (right); Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911, Paris, d. 2010, New York)

Louise Bourgeois paved the way for women artists and sculptors throughout her long career. She began studying art after the death of her mother in 1932. She began producing large-scale sculptures shortly after moving to New York in the late 1930s. After decades of work, Bourgeois gained recognition when, in 1982 at the age of 70, she received a retrospective at MoMA. Following the exhibition, institutions around the world acquired Bourgeois’s works and she received international acclaim for the last 30 years of her career.

The Artist’s Voice:

“The spiders were an ode to my mother. She was a tapestry woman, and like a spider, was a weaver. She protected me and was my best friend.”

“I want to create my own architecture so that the relationships of my forms and objects are fixed. Sometimes I need the large scale so that the person can literally move in relationship to the form. The difference between the real space and the psychological space interests me and I want to explore both. For example, the spiders, which are portraits of my mother, are large because she was a monument to me. I want to walk around and be underneath her and feel her protection.”—Louise Bourgeois, interview in The Guardian

Louise Bourgeois, Spider III, 1995; Bronze, 19 x 33 x 33 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Louise Bourgeois, Spider III, 1995; Bronze, 19 x 33 x 33 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Revival Highlight:

Revival features three sculptures by Bourgeois, situated in the exhibition’s three central themes of the body, the child, and other creatures. Topiary (2006) represents a pre-pubescent female figure with a seed head. Another sculpture, Clutching Hands (1990), depicts a balloon-like pair of carved hands atop a marble block. The exhibition also includes one of her signature spider forms, Spider III (1995), recently acquired by NMWA.

The resurgence of the spider in Bourgeois’s sculptures from the mid-1990s, including Spider III, is evidence of the lasting importance this creature had in the artist’s imagination. Bourgeois associated the spider with protectiveness and frequently remarked that her mother, Joséphine, shared spiders’ admirable attributes of patience, industriousness and cleverness. Although Bourgeois saw a nurturing quality in spiders, she understood that they can evoke a fearful response in others. The cast-bronze medium allowed her to create a rough surface texture that gives this creature a dynamic quality, capturing spiders’ characteristic skittering motion.

Visit the museum and explore Revival, on view through September 10, 2017.

—Meghan Masius was the spring 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: October 21, 2016

Ava DuVernay’s new documentary 13th explores how the U.S. became the country with the world’s largest prison population—and why a disproportional number of those prisoners are black.

The film borrows its title from the 13th amendment to the constitution, which outlawed slavery but left a loophole. NPR calls it the film a “searing, opinionated interpretation of American history.” The Guardian writes that DuVernay leans on “eloquent talking-head interviews and well-sourced archive material” to study the links between slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration.

Front-Page Femmes

Victoria and Albert Museum curator Sonnet Stanfill discusses gender imbalance in art museum leadership. NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling adds that “women still have a long road ahead of them to gain gender parity in the museum world.”

NO MAN’S LAND artist Anicka Yi received the 2016 Hugo Boss Prize for innovative and influential work in the contemporary art world.

2016 MacArthur Fellow Kellie Jones says, “A lot of women artists don’t get any recognition…their early years are really their 50s or 60s.”

NMWA artist Amy Sherald talks to Baltimore Magazine about her education, heart failure, and professional success.

Yoko Ono unveiled her first permanent art installation in the U.S.

Hyperallergic writes, “Decades before other artists, [Florine] Stettheimer depicted a number of challenging subjects that remain controversial and relevant today.”

Artist Nidaa Badwan created a photo series chronicling 20 months she spent in self-imposed quarantine during the Israel-Gaza conflict.

Madame Tussauds in Hong Kong will open a Yayoi Kusama “artistic themed zone.

British artist Lucy Sparrow created bodies of work that consist of more than 4,000 items made entirely of felt.

Japanese paper artist Chie Hitotsuyama creates textured sculptures of animals using rolled strips of wet newspaper.

Hauser Wirth & Schimmel will feature NO MAN’S LAND artist Isa Genzken’s I love Michael Asher.

Photographer Beth Moon documents the world’s oldest trees in her new book Ancient Skies, Ancient Trees.

A new animated biopic offers insight into Hokusai’s work through the life of his daughter, an artist in Edo-era Japan.

Six female artists, including NO MAN’S LAND painter Elizabeth Peyton, discuss Bob Dylan’s influence.

Actress Kathleen Turner discusses The Year of Magical Thinking, a play based on Joan Didion’s 2005 memoir.

Shows We Want to See

The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art near Copenhagen hosts Louise Bourgeois. The Structure of Existence: The Cells, showcasing 25 of the artist’s powerful installations. Referred to as “cells” by Bourgeois, each work “is an independent spatial unit filled with carefully arranged objects which create different scenarios.”

Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s at The Photographers’ Gallery features the work of 45 female artists from across the world, including Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman, and Hannah Wilke.

Grandma Moses: American Modern is on view at the Shelburne Museum. Hyperallergic writes, “The Grandma Moses story reads a lot like an artist’s fairy tale.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: November 20, 2015

A new retrospective of French portrait artist Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) is on view at the Grand Palais in Paris. Half of the works are from private collections and are on view for the public for the first time.

As Queen Marie Antoinette’s favorite court painter, Vigée Le Brun had to flee Paris during the French Revolution. Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun 1755–1842 charts the artist’s rise to fame and her successful career. Apollo Magazine praises the exhibition for including less well-known works that offer “human insight” into the turbulence of the French Revolution.

Front Page Femmes

Actor Alec Baldwin told ARTnews how he accidentally purchased a Pat Steir painting for $95,000.

Laura Lima turns a storefront into a chicken coop—complete with hens and a rooster with brightly colored feathers.

The Plume Project, started by artist Emily Stover, uses a power plant’s steam plume to create art in the sky.

The Guerrilla Girls plan an “anti-billionaire” campaign to highlight discrimination.

An excerpt from a 100-year-old ARTnews article discusses women art dealers.

ThreeFold by Natasha Johns-Messenger is a maze of mirrors that tricks and disorients visitors.

French Photographer Valérie Belin was awarded the Prix Pictet for her memento mori project using cheap, plastic goods to expose grotesque excess.

Victorian artist Fiona McMonagle won the biennial University of Queensland National Self-Portrait Prize for her 16-second video of 100 self-portraits.

Feminist art historian Linda Nochlin also writes poetry.

Children’s book author Kate DiCamillo writes an essay for the Washington Post about reading stories aloud.

Forgotten stained-glass artist Wilhelmina Geddes is the subject of a new book.

“The Queen of Swing”—95-year-old Norma Miller—discusses her fame as a Lindy Hop dancer and her recent career in comedy.

Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho plays Zazà in an upcoming performance at the Barbican.

New York street performer Lois Evans asks passersby to nominate women who they think should be memorialized with a public monument.

Actress Krysten Ritter, recently cast as Marvel superhero Jessica Jones, says the role is “an amazing female character study that we haven’t seen before on television.”

Shows We Want to See

The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow hosts a powerful exhibition of Louise Bourgeois’s Cells, which “chronicle a recursive series of anxieties, one of the last iterations in the long process of art-as-therapy that characterizes Bourgeois’s work.”

Corita Kent and the Language of Pop presents 60 screen prints by artist, activist, and nun Sister Mary Corita Kent. Hyperallergic explores how “Kent distilled a Pop narrative into a larger political and religious conversation.”

Haunting video and photographs by German artist Annina Roescheisen tell the story of Shakespeare’s Ophelia in What Are You Fishing For?

The New York Times highlights solo exhibitions in Los Angeles for video artists Simone Forti, Magdalena Fernández, and Diana Thater. About video as a medium, Thater explains, “There is no male-dominated history, so there’s more freedom.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Petah Coyne

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Petah Coyne (b. 1953), whose work is on view at NMWA.

Petah Coyne (b.1953)

Petah Coyne, Untitled #781, 1994; Wax, plastic, cloth, and steel, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York

Petah Coyne, Untitled #781, 1994; Wax, plastic, cloth, and steel, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York

1. Multitalented Maven

Although she is known for her sculptures, Coyne double-majored in photography and printmaking at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Coyne reconnected with photography while traveling. Using handmade pinhole cameras, she creates abstract photographs focusing on subjects’ movements rather than their forms.

2. It’s Personal

Coyne’s personal experiences influence her work, but she also leaves them open to interpretation. When confronted with her sculptures, viewers often compare them to layer cakes, wedding gowns, chandeliers, overstated summer hats, bird cages, and more. What does her work evoke for you?

3. Little Women

Coyne views her sculptures as extensions of herself, and refers to them as “my girls.”


Untitled #781 in NMWA’s galleries

4. Sparking Interest

For her first wax work, Coyne constructed a hat for a friend using hot glue, wire, and candles. When she lit the candles, the glue ignited and the hat went up in flames!

5. Inspiring Company

Untitled #781 hangs in NMWA’s third floor sculpture gallery. When Coyne started working, she was inspired by two other artists who suspended large works from the ceiling: Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois.

—Ashley Harris is assistant educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: August 21, 2015

Musician Janelle Monáe made headlines this week with the new iteration of her song “Hell You Talmabout.” The Washington Post reflects on recent reactions to Monáe’s song and her growing presence on the national stage.

The Guardian covers her appearance on NBC’s Today show and her efforts in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Her powerful political song features chants of the names of many African American men and women who died at the hands of the police.

Front-Page Femmes

The Swiss bank UBS will commission famed photographer Annie Leibovitz to create a series of portraits of notable women as an extension of her 1999 series “Women.”

Atena Farghadani, the long-jailed Iranian artist, won the 2015 Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award.

Pioneering Detroit art dealer Susan Hilberry passed away at the age of 72. ARTnews says, “Hilberry was admired for keeping an eye on young talent, balancing shows of canonized artists with those of promising upstarts.”

Brain Pickings explores unpublished writings of French-American artist Louise Bourgeois.

Jerry Saltz writes a memorial article for art patron Melva Bucksbaum. A supporter of women artists, Bucksbaum curated a show that featured over 100 works by women.

Robert McCrum’s 100 Greatest Novels list covers almost 300 years of literature but only includes 21 works by women. Writers Patricia Highsmith and Margaret Atwood were not included.

The Huffington Post lists 14 women writers who dominate the universe of sci-fi.

The Huffington Post lists books by ten women authors who were first published after the age of 40.

The New Yorker explores the writings of Sagawa Chika, a nearly-forgotten Japanese poet.

Sadie Frost employed an 80% female crew for her new film. Frost’s research revealed that only 23% of film crew members were women in the highest-grossing films of the past 20 years.

Jennifer Lawrence is the world’s highest paid actress, followed by Scarlett Johansson and Melissa McCarthy.

Actress Melissa McCarthy’s new clothing line hopes to break down stereotypes in the fashion industry.

Ballet dancer-turned-actress Yvonne Craig died at the age of 78. Craig was best known for her role as Batgirl in the 1960s TV series.

Time celebrates actress Maureen O’Hara’s 95th birthday by taking a look at photos from her career.

U.K. singer Marina Diamandis—of Marina and the Diamonds—talks to Rolling Stone about her career. Diamandis discusses the misunderstanding surrounding female pop stars “that they can’t possibly be creating the art themselves—there must be a man behind it.”

Shows We Want to See

Margaret Harrison’s sexually-charged art exhibition in 1971 was dubbed “indecent” by the police, closing after a single day.

Harrison continues to expand her feminist art approach in her new exhibition at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima).

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark’s last assignment was to document the state of New Orleans ten years after Hurricane Katrina. Organized by CNN and the International Center of Photography, the exhibition’s photographs include wall text and an online exhibition that elaborate on the subjects’ stories.

Francesca Woodman’s photographs explore gender, representation, sexuality, and body in an upcoming exhibition at Moderna Museet.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Louise Bourgeois: By the Book

The exhibition catalogue Louise Bourgeois. Structures of Existence: The Cells (Prestel Publishing and Haus der Kunst, 2015) showcases the artist’s work creating Cells, a series of architectural sculptures that she worked on for twenty years, from 1986 through 2008.

These embody the belief of Bourgeois (1911–2010) that “space does not exist, it is just a metaphor for the structure of our existences.” The Cells are enclosures or cage forms, often incorporating mirrors, dummy-like figures, or staircases leading nowhere—nuanced and provocative spatial metaphors for her own personal history. The book compiles essays and conversations revealing Bourgeois’s influences and the way that her childhood experiences, coupled with recondite concepts from her early works, form the Cells series.

The book’s sections provide a comprehensive perspective on how Bourgeois’s life and memories influenced the Cells. Texts include conversations with Bourgeois’s long-time assistant Jerry Gorovoy, essays by renowned scholars, a short biography, and selected statements and quotations from the artist herself.

Several essays focus on a single Cell, such as the elaborate and cage-like Passage Dangereux (1997), and explain how the piece relates to Bourgeois’s oeuvre and biography. Other contributors focus on the abstract meanings behind the emotion-laden sculptural constructions. These complex emotions are rooted in Bourgeois’s difficult childhood, her aggression toward her philandering father, and the constant tension between her desires to remember the past and to forget it. Gorovoy states, “The Cells tell stories and are definitely autobiographical, but the emotions are universal.”

Exhibition connection:

Louise Bourgeois, Hairy Spider, 2001; Drypoint on paper, 19 x 16 in.; On loan from the Holladay Collection; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA New York; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Louise Bourgeois, Hairy Spider, 2001; Drypoint on paper, 19 x 16 in.; On loan from the Holladay Collection; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA New York; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Currently on view at NMWA in Super Natural, Louise Bourgeois’s drypoint print Hairy Spider depicts a spider, a common motif in the artist’s work.

Bourgeois associated spiders with patience, and she often likened them to her mother, whom she saw as patient to a fault when it came to handling her father’s adultery with her live-in nanny.

To capture her mother’s presence in painful memories from her childhood, Bourgeois included spiders in some of the Cells featured in the exhibition catalogue—the book reveals that Bourgeois often felt frustrated that her patient mother calmly tolerated this infidelity. The drypoint in Super Natural connects back to Bourgeois’s oft-revisited themes of spiders, patience, and motherhood.

—Christy Slobogin is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.