Louise Bourgeois at WAM
Post #896 • October 30, 2006, 10:42 AM • 62 Comments
Worcester, MA — Not long ago I conceived of the Bourgeois Test. In a group exhibition of contemporary art, if a work by Louise Bourgeois is the best thing in the show, the show is in trouble. The ubiquity of her work among contemporary art collections makes this a test that one can perform regularly, and it returns reliable positives because her work, while it can be quirky enough to be interesting, tends to rely on trappings that resemble, and only resemble, serious artistic engagement. They involve serious personal engagement, heartfelt and searching, but that's a different matter. Nevertheless, even interesting quirkiness and a semblance of seriousness tend to make her work look better than the great run of dreck in the prematurely established canon of contemporary masters. It represents a triumph of sincerity over self-criticism, but it is, at least, sincere.
Since formulating the Bourgeois Test, I've wondered, what if hers was the only work in the exhibition? I found out at the Worcester Art Museum, which is showing Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child (in context). It makes a cogent effort to put a recent WAM acquisition alongside related works incorporating textiles; curatorially, it adds up. As I would have predicted, though, the Bourgeois Test applied to a roomful of Bourgeois indicated correctly that the show was in trouble. Wall copy at WAM cited someone calling her the "oldest of the young artists." (At 95, it is a victory to be producing work of equal fortitude to the rest of one's career.) It's an apt characterization, but not in a good way. Like the work of many young artists, hers is aimed, not cynically, but not rightly either, to appeal to impulses that people commonly substitute for visual sophistication. If you have feminist sympathies, her work will tickle them. If you go for something edgy-looking, or think that advanced art doesn't look like art, then you're all set with Bourgeois. Erotic references? Craft references? Conceptual insertions of text? Check, check, and check. They even relate to the spent radicalism of Body Art, albeit enacted with strange little dolls.
(As an aside, I call for a moratorium on wall copy that plugs values into this sentence: "X's work deals with dialectics: a/-a, b/-b, c/-c, etc." It's the art writing equivalent of styrofoam - opaque, bland, and good only for padding. An instance appeared in Woven Child, and I noticed it because I had just seen the same formulation on a label next to the Shazia Sikander that the MFA hung at the end of the hallway outside its Domains of Wonder exhibition, where, frankly, it belonged, if it had to go somewhere.)
Stripping all that away and looking at the objects as objects, she displays a decent graphic sense and a flair for combining hard and soft materials. This latter quality animates her sculptures far more their shapes, which are schematic, even heraldic in their unwillingness to engage the space around them, their energies devoted so fully to psychology. A typical Bourgeois sculpture reads well from one direction, sometimes two, seldom three. They bristle with undeniable emotion, but it seems trapped or muffled by compositional timidity. Troubled odes to human coupling, between the genders and the generations, they look too much like non-art looking like art to succeed fully as art. Even this partial success often outperforms a great many artists, but seeing her up against herself, I conclude that her prominence would survive a remeasuring of her visual achievement, and ought to be made to do so.