It appears too far-fetched to be true, but Louise Bourgeois’ first solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1982 was the first time a female artist had been given a solo show at the museum. A shocking fact, but one that is testament at least to the uniquely high-esteem MoMA holds the French artist. “Louise Bourgeois—An Unfolding Portrait” is now their third solo show dedicated to the artist who died in 2010, but is the first to give pride of place to her much celebrated—if lesser known—print works, and the hugely important role they played in her creative process.

Bourgeois is familiar to all of us as the creator of the enormous metal spider sculptures, like the ones that towered above dizzied spectators at the inauguration of Tate Modern’s momentous Turbine Hall. It is less known that before becoming a sculptor she was a dedicated printer, relying on her surreal etchings and engravings to sustain her art practice. One of the first things she did after arriving in America in 1932—having married the American art historian Robert Goldwater—was buy herself a printing press.

On the left an installation view of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, The Museum of Modern Art, New York and on the right Spider, 1997

Even though the vast majority of her life was spent in America, especially New York, she always maintained that her art was framed around her childhood in France, and the actions of her philandering father. He conducted a 10-year flagrant affair with the English Governess, Sadie, who had been employed by him to educate the young Bourgeois. Because she adored her governess, to Bourgeois it was a “double betrayal”. Deeply humiliated, her mother had even used Bourgeois as a pawn to keep an eye on things, pretending, all the while, that everything was normal. The experience affected Bourgeois profoundly, and she would later refer to it in an artwork as “Child Abuse.”

Artists, Bourgeois once observed, “have no access to a cure”, which is why they are doomed to repeat themselves. And indeed her themes were constantly revisited, over and over again. But she never repeated herself, always discovering a painful, wry and captivating new take on intimacy, family, and emotional betrayal.

One of her most repeated motifs is that of the Spiral Woman, whose contorted forms populate her prints and artworks. With their bulbous folds of flesh, like an obscene enveloping pregnancy, she dangles precariously by a wire thread across each medium. The limited edition work was actually a later interpretation of the bronze sculpture, but with added face and hair. In the same way that she, inexplicably, saw the spider as a mothering guardian, the spiral—far from indicating spiraling out of control—was to her a way of “controlling chaos”.

On the left Installation view of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, The Museum of Modern Art, New York and on the right Spiral Woman, 2003, Drypoint and engraving

Louise Bourgeois made more than 1200 limited edition prints over her lifetime and MoMA has just about all of them, plus thousands of subtle variations as she experimented with colors, inks, and techniques. In this exhibition a total of 265 are on view with many previously unseen prints from Bourgeois’ final two decades, when she returned to the print medium with gusto. She always had a reverence for the “symbolic power” of engraving, believing it had the capability of converting “aggression” into something useful. But she found the physical demands of pushing the burin through the metal plate highly problematic, lamenting her lack of “biceps”. 

Deborah Wye, the chief curator emerita of MoMA’s prints and artist books, who was also behind her first MoMA 1982 exhibition, is a leading expert on the work of the great French artist. Her groupings emphasize not only the thorough exploration of an idea or motif, but reveal how she managed, with a subtle change of color or ink, to alter a print work when using a single plate. It is impossible not to get the impression that she delighted in being able to swiftly change her ideas as they developed in her head, and at times the proofs are so extensively reworked that they became unique works of art in their own right.

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Throughout the exhibition, sculptures and installations and prints and drawings are interweaved, echoing her belief that there should be no hierarchies between the medium—or in her words no “rivalry”. Included in the exhibition are a number of her astounding cell installations. Like cages of domesticity, they cocoon everyday objects like a bed or isolated chair, the unsettling settings and familiar objects fixed in simmering psychologically tension. 

Wonderfully there is a new website with an almost complete inventory of Louise Bourgeois’ prints. Perfect for anyone who won’t be arriving at the Big Apple anytime soon.

On the left Louise Bourgeois at the printing press in the lower level of her home/studio on 20th Street, New York, 1995 and on the right Self Portrait, 1990

Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait can be viewed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from the 24th of September through to the 28th of January 28, 2018.

By Nina Koidl