Last night, during a get-together at Bushwick gallery Famous Accountants, conversation inevitably turned to this summer’s first trio of celebrity deaths, capped yesterday by the death of 98-year-old French-American artist Louise Bourgeois of a heart attack. Productive up to her death and perhaps best known for her iconic giant spiders, she most recently held both a major career retrospective at the Guggenheim and a show of new work at Cheim & Reid in the fall of 2008, and she continued her practice of holding salons for young artists at her home in West Chelsea. One of the attendees at last night’s get-together in Bushwick remembered fondly taking her work to two of these critiques chez Bourgeois.
Austin Thomas, founder of scene-sparking Bushwick gallery Pocket Utopia, recounted two visits to Bourgeois’ townhouse five years ago for the free, somewhat secretive salon and open critique that she happily held for younger artists. The first she attended “just to scope it out,” but by the second knew just what type of work to bring. “It was never about having your art critiqued,” Thomas said, “it was about Louise, about being in her presence. I knew she had a sweet tooth, she loved chocolate, so I baked her a big chocolate cake.” That definitely did the trick.
“The whole night she kept asking, ‘Who made zhis cake?’, Thomas recounted, “and I would raise my hand: ‘I did, Louise.’ By the end of the night, all the other artists there hated me. Eventually they all left, and it was just me, my friend and Louise, and she had two or three slices of cake. She finally looked at some of my drawings and said: ‘Your work is very good.’ And all I could think was, yeah right, you’re just high on cake! Then she started telling us jokes.”
An always intimidating and outspoken figure, but with a wicked sense of humor, Bourgeois was perpetually and proudly out of step with the contemporary art trends of the day. She first rose to prominence in the 1970s with video and performance art, keeping things figurative and rough-edged when sleak abstract minimalism was the popular style; she seemed ahead of her time when neo-figurative styles came back in the 80s, by which time she had evolved her own idiosyncratic iconography of arachnids, eggs, phalluses and tortured bodies sculpted out of unconventional materials like cloth. She continued to explore new styles, particularly with the architectural rooms and staircases of the last 15 or so years.
Her home was, by all accounts, a living museum of sorts, piled high with unseen work that will surely prove a treasure trove when the time comes to mount her first posthumous retrospective. Drawn from her own memories and experiences, her unique style and subjects spoke to a very personal experience that continues to be powerfully moving for millions.