“Louise has always said the work is more her than her physical being,” explains Jerry Gorovoy, Louise Bourgeois’ friend and assistant of 30 years until her death in 2010. “She used to say: ‘The work needs no words, it’s a visual work. If I could say it, I wouldn’t make it.’” Jerry flits from speaking about Bourgeois in the past and present tense and it’s easy to see why as you walk through the new exhibition of her work at the Guggenheim Bilbao. Her presence is palpable, not just physically (most of the sculptures are over 5ft tall), but the deep narratives and raw emotions the artist packs into her works make it feel like she’s reading you pages from her journal.
Bourgeois’ spider sculptures are her most iconic, and Maman, which was originally commissioned by the Tate Modern for its Turbine Hall in 1999, sits outside of the Guggenheim to invite viewers in. Inside, the museum focuses on her series of Cells sculptures, created over two decades when the artist was in her 80s. This body of work is the quickest way to delve into Bourgeois’ mind and the thoughts that occupied it. Presented as large scale installations, the Cells are architectural spaces composed of found objects, garments, furniture and personal artefacts from the artist. Out of around 60 sculptures, the exhibition presents 28 of them in gloriously personal detail.
“I don’t think people know the Cells as well as her other work,” says Jerry. “But when you see them all together, you see the evolution. The strength of this exhibition is that you really get to see the development of a particular form over a period of time.” The progression is clear when walking from room to room. Bourgeois begins the Cells series with wooden doors as a way of keeping the viewer out, then she moves on to glass panes and mirrors, and finishes on industrial, transparent wire cages to house her vignettes. An exploration of memory, anxiety, pain and the fear of abandonment, this body of work gained momentum when Bourgeois moved into her Brooklyn studio and the new space offered bigger opportunities. “I knew it represented a change in the way she was working in terms of scale, but I had no idea how long she would continue working in this way and what it really meant,” says Jerry.
Curated by Julienne Lorz and Petra Joos, the Guggenheim Bilbao has worked with Haus der Kunst in Germany on the exhibition, where the show was initially shown. The space Frank Gehry’s building provides Bourgeois’ work with is remarkable. Each piece has room to breathe and forms a dialogue between each other despite being away from where they were originally conceived. Jerry was present throughout the creation of Bourgeois’ Cells, so his explanation of her work feels unedited and honest. “She liked to work alone but I did see her working sometimes. It was mostly just us two in the studio. If she needed help, she just yelled. For all the aesthetic decisions, I think she needed to be isolated and alone.”
The pair first met in 1980 when Jerry was hanging her work in a Soho gallery and the artist walked past the window. “I didn’t know the work so well and I’d only seen a few pieces, but I thought they were strong,” he says. He was 25 and she was 70. Rather than a meeting of minds, their first conversation was an argument in which Bourgeois shouted at Jerry that he was hanging her work all wrong. “She could be quite aggressive and powerful, but then she calmed down after we had some tea. She then invited me to her house and so I saw even more of her work.”
At first, Jerry only worked for Bourgeois a few hours a week but slowly his role grew to assistant, manager and friend. Her career spanned 70 years but it was only later in life, with Jerry’s involvement, that she became more known. The work, rather than the fame, always remained priority for Bourgeois. “I had to force her to go to a few of her own openings in the beginning even though she didn’t want to… She felt the whole thing was unnecessary, so was rarely involved in the commercial side of her work.”
With notability came labels and Bourgeois was often touted as a “female artist” in a sea of male contemporaries including Pollock, Rothko and Bacon. “She had feminist leanings of course, but she didn’t like it when people called her a ‘good female artist’, she felt that was limiting,” says Jerry. “Louise’s work is autobiographical but the emotions she expresses are universal. Her work is pre-gendered.” This notion of omnipresent ideas, encapsulate why Bourgeois’ work remains so relevant today. Despite the female tag, the artist never attributed her work to any particular movement or philosophy. She felt political art “dated too quickly,” and that surrealist painters (who were still popular when she was working) always seemed to “make women the object of their work, whereas she wanted to make women the subject instead.”
“If she didn’t have problems in the real world, I don’t think she would’ve been an artist. She tried to escape, understand or forgive what she went through.”
Bourgeois never approached her work with a concept in mind, she just made what felt right. Jerry sees her use of materials as being key to her practice. “She had a gift with materials and a way of making them come alive when putting them together. She makes poetic, symbolic constellations. She pushes her body into the material.” Her exploration of materials took off while in her Brooklyn studio which was an old garment factory. Objects she found on the street or in the surrounding rooms of her workspace were often woven into her pieces. The staircase in The Last Climb from 2008, which sits in a room with some of her final drawings, is one of the clearest examples of this. “That staircase came from her studio. They were tearing the building down so she took one of the staircases with her before she left, so the piece is literally the last climb,” says Jerry. He compares the way she approached each piece to artists today. “She would work in any material that would offer her the possibilities of what she wanted to say. A lot of young artists seem to be working in that way today… It’s not so rigid anymore.”
The autobiographical focus in Bourgeois’ work saw her draw upon past experiences and individuals to express the ongoing themes in her work. The needles, thread and spools that feature throughout her Cells , allude to the artist’s childhood spent in a tapestry factory where she lived with her parents who restored valuable tapestries for a living. Being given this invitation into Bourgeois’ history it would be easy to assume that the artist found it hard to move on especially when presented with so many of her Cells at once. “A lot people say that she’s stuck in her memories but she was never nostalgic,” explains Jerry. “She always said, ‘if you’re going to the memories, that’s no good, the memories need to come to you.’”
Whenever a piece was finished she moved on quickly. “She didn’t live with her work, she liked to have it removed. It was almost like a distraction,” says Jerry. Her past was intrinsically linked to her tempestuous present and it was a way of internalising everything. “She lived in the present, but felt the present intensely… I think it was those difficulties that she was actually dealing with in her work, that was her reality,” says Jerry. “If she didn’t have problems in the real world, I don’t think she would’ve been an artist. She tried to escape, understand or forgive what she went through. Her work is an inquiry into a state of being.”
Now, at 63, Jerry runs the Louise Bourgeois Foundation and oversees most of the installations of her work. Despite this continued involvement with the artist, there’s a distance and respect he still likes to maintain even now. “I don’t really like to talk about her work because I don’t want to put my own views on it too much,” he says. “I try to express what I think Louise was… I remember all the hysterical moments quite clearly. She’s quite a character. You can’t make this kind of work and not be eccentric. Her name is Bourgeois, but she is not bourgeois.”
Louise Bourgeois: Structures of Existence – The Cells is open now at the Guggenheim Bilbao until 4 September 2016