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“Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory, Works 1982-1993”

In a culture whose art stars are growing increasingly adolescent in both age and behavior, it’s particularly gratifying that some of today’s most incisive artistic commentary on the late 20th century comes from a woman who—at 83—can only be described as mature. Age may or may not have something to do with it, but “Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory, Works 1982-1993,” an 11-year retrospective of Bourgeois’ sculptures currently on view at the Corcoran, reveals a remarkable gift for insinuating psychological truth into instantly convincing yet unexpected forms.

Bourgeois passed through all the major stylistic art movements since 1945 without ever taking root in or being claimed by any of them, and this is reflected in her sculptures, which defy categorization yet always seem vaguely familiar. The works in “Locus of Memory” are the largest and most ambitious the artist has yet produced (a fact that can probably be attributed to belated acclaim following a 1983 exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art). But although her sculptures are more monumental and more narratively complex than they once were, they continue to explore the themes of her earlier work.

The artist’s artistic production has been remarkably consistent. Although Bourgeois frames issues in a way that draws on both her French education and her life at the heart of American intellectual and visual art culture, her concern with anxiety, alienation, love, identity, sex, and death corresponds to the preoccupation with gender, sex, and individuality expressed by today’s young artists. Her frank confrontations with sexuality often incorrectly link her to the surrealists—many of whom she knew and disliked—but her investigations are propelled by an existentialist desire to understand the authentic elements of the self. To this end, she draws on autobiography, forcing the reverberating traumas of childhood through filters of abstracted, organic forms. Direct figural references appear in some of her recent work, but for the most part she continues to work allusively (yet with explicitly sexual imagery that merges specific references to male and female genitalia with generalized organic shapes).

Several examples of this are included in “Locus of Memory,” perhaps most alarmingly in Nature Study, but with consistently disturbing effects in Untitled (With Growth), Mamelles, and Blind Man’s Buff. The last three works use breast and phallus forms carved in marble (Untitled [With Growth] and Blind Man’s Buff) or molded in rubber (Mamelles) and shaped in distressingly animate ways. Nature Study, a bronze, combines the crouching hindquarters of a feline—perhaps a sphinx—with a breast-covered human torso and neck. It’s a strange and menacing figure with emphatic suggestions about the power of sexuality.

Bourgeois’ recent use of bronze and marble perpetuates the classicism that has infused her formal vocabulary for many years. It’s a characteristic she has developed episodically (she’s used just about every material available to contemporary sculpture) to give her organic, sexually suggestive forms a Platonic, idealized absoluteness. Her recent work contains more of this vision and less of the squirming pod- and wormlike informality so often present in her wood, plaster, and rubber works.

Though Bourgeois’ classicism is evident in “Locus of Memory” ‘s marble works, the exhibit finds her employing figural references and geometrically abstract shapes that have appeared for the first time in her work of the last decade. In such works as Untitled (With Foot), Femme Maison, Décontractée, and the numerous arm and hand fragments included in the exhibition’s installations, the contrast of figural realism with monumental, memorializing marble allows the psychic aspects of her sexually charged imagery to develop. Untitled (With Foot) is particularly haunting. On top of a rough-cut pink marble base are placed the small leg and foot of a doll or a very young child. This leg is crushed into the irregularly carved base by a perfect marble sphere. On one side of the base are the carved words: “Do you love me? Do you love me?”

The artist uses pink marble for another work: a carved model of her family’s home at Choisy-le-Roi that is displayed in a glass-and-wire-mesh cage with a guillotine blade positioned before the front façade. (The home, like the body, is for Bourgeois a site of complex contradictions: It establishes the terms of identity as well as the manner in which we experience it.) We know from the artist’s autobiography that this house is the physical site of a trauma her life’s work has struggled to exorcise, yet it is the least compelling of the “Cell” series installations included at the Corcoran. Perhaps its autobiographical specificity weakens the universality attained by her other forms and juxtapositions. Or perhaps the distracting references supplied by the house’s form weaken the focus that Bourgeois’ other works easily sustain.

Altogether, there are six of the “Cell” series installation works in the show. Four enclose their symbolic references in wire mesh fencing and glass; two construct small enclosures from old doors so that the materials contained within the enclosures, as well as the events they evoke, are only partially revealed. These operate almost like theatrical tableaux, indirectly suggesting a narrative with the symbolic resonances of their objects and materials. Since these two works, Cell II and Cell IV, include fragmented body parts (arms with wringing hands and a gigantic ear, respectively), the actors are symbolically, if incompletely, present.

In the four more open “Cell” series works, the artist’s narratives are more abstract. A pair of huge marble eyes resembling breasts bulge from a large stone oval surrounded by eight mirrors—standing, tilting, suspended, and angling-in from the walls of Cell (Eyes and Mirrors). Another piece contains two huge marble spheres and one tiny one. In Cell (Glass Spheres and Hands), whose narrative intensity and mystery are uncompromising, wooden stools support large glass balls sitting like personages around a table, supporting another pair of marble arms and wringing hands.

During her childhood, Bourgeois’ family owned a tapestry repair business that provides both imagery and symbolic inspiration for the artist’s recent work. The needle’s capacity to mend and to pierce is the basis for several recent pieces, two of which are included in this show. Needle (Fuseau) makes the reference explicit in the title, but the same giant arcing steel form occurs in Poids. In the latter work, a long curve of metal supports two metal rings containing fish bowls partly filled with dyed blue water. Needle‘s references to textiles are immediate: A monster needle holds up a thick strand of wool that unwinds from a mirrored disk. In these works, the familiar shape becomes almost mythic.

The mythic is also apparent in the enormous spider Bourgeois constructed for this exhibition. The piece is ostensibly in honor of her mother, and the artist notes on an accompanying wall label that the spider represents the “maternal principle of protection and complex social interaction.” As with all of Bourgeois’ works, it is fascinating to analyze the spider’s construction. But iconographically, it suggests the devouring mother more powerfully than it does the nurturing one. Western art has preferred to keep these two concepts as opposites: Bourgeois may be proposing a sculptural vision that unites them.

A similar mythic rightness animates my favorite work in the exhibition, the 10-foot-tall, hanging rubber Legs. Each leg is roughly 2 inches square and terminates in a stylized foot that looks as if it just slipped out of a turn-of-the-century French boot. The work is hung so that the feet are suspended a few inches off the ground, and one leg rotates slowly in the air circulating through the darkened gallery. Here, Bourgeois’ explorations of body, sexuality, identity, loneliness, and death come together.

After over 50 years of active artistic production, Bourgeois and her work retain the capacity to tantalize, shock, enchant, and disturb. The contradictory aspects of Legs—its distortion, its vulnerability, its abstracted recognizability, its narrative reticence—demonstrate Bourgeois’ habit of presenting a form that at first seems self-evident, but that quickly becomes opaque. Her language of form, which seems to be endlessly resourceful, is intuitive yet intellectually indirect: Viewers must feel their way into a Bourgeois sculpture, not try to think their way there. Hers is sophisticated, poetically- and culturally-rooted art that unites both autobiography and a whole literary and philosophical tradition.