Louise Bourgeois tells Nick Barley about her art, her image, and her extraordinary relationship with her mother.
Nick Barley: You have lived for most of your life in New York. Do you wish you had spent more time in your native France?
Louise Bourgeois: I never had an interest to go back to France. All my work was made here in New York. My life is in New York. | always said that l was a runaway girl who made it and never looked back.
The curator of your forthcoming Fruitmarket exhibition, Frances Morris, has described you as ‘the oldest of young artists’. But does the advancement of age change the way you make work? Can you describe what you have been working on recently, for example?
I have a rhythm to my day. I need structure. order and consistency. My whole day is organised hour by hour. and | feel at ease in it. I hate chaos. You have to know your limits. I am working on many drawings and prints now. They may be the seeds for sculptures. Time will tell. I feel that there is still a lot that l have to say and that I need to say. I am aware of the passing of time. I've worked my whole life trying to hold onto my memories. they are my documents.
You have made a series of works which include cages and spiders, which seem to make reference to your mother. How would you describe your mother’s inﬂuence on your work?
My mother always encouraged me. She was a feminist. She wanted me to be educated. whereas my father wanted me to get married. He thought artists were pretentious. He was macho. The spiders are an ode to my mother. She was a weaver. restoring tapestries in our family business. and my best friend. She was deliberate. clever. patient. soothing. and as neat and useful as a spider. She loved to restore things. That idea of restoration and reparation is deep within me. You were the first woman artist ever to have retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1982. What was the public’s reaction at the time?
I was pleased to have the exhibition at MoMA in 198?. A show is just a show. and I don't need that to motivate me in any way. It is interesting to see the consistency of what I wanted to say and what I feel that I am still saying today. It's the progression in the work itself that is important. and the self knowledge that I get from it. I think the public was wondering what kind of person made this work. They were trying to make sense of it all. and perhaps it was hard to digest given that all the materials and forms seemed so different to them. I think people were looking for the thread to hold the work together. and they latched much too much onto the stOry of Sadie. my father's mistress. that was published in Art Forum at the time of the show.
Your installation at Tate Modern was the first to be seen in the Tate’s huge Turbine Hall. How did it feel to be faced with the challenge of
Repairs in the sky
At 92, Bourgeois remains at the peak of her powers. One recent suite of prints (detail, left) is called What is the Shape of this Problem?
such a large space? The space was a challenge. Do you dominate it or are you dominated by it? For me. the commission allowed me the possibility to realise something that had been on my mind for a long time and for that I am very grateful. I feel lucky to have been given this chance. The pieces are now in storage. and we are working on plans to have them installed permanently.
In Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous portrait of you, you seem to be carrying a phallus under your arm. Since then, you explained that this is actually a sculpture entitled ‘Fillette’. Does it trouble you if your work is misinterpreted?
Robert was a friend. but not a close friend. Somehow. I had a sense of what he was about. I brought my soulpture 'Fillette' with me as a security measure. I don't think much of what I look like. I am not an actress. I am not what I look like. I am what I do. The piece is not a phallus. ‘Fillette' means une petite fille, a little girl. You could say that I brought a little l ouise with me; it gave me security. Some of your most recent works include fabric-covered heads and bodies, some suspended from wires. Do these represent particular individuals, or are they more generic?
l have always been interested in portraiture. To capture the likeness of someone is quite difficult and a great art. My portraits reflect the many personalities and emotions of an individual. or they sometimes portray a relationship. My fabric heads and figures reflect states of being and deal with the themes of isolation and loneliness. Loneliness is a human condition. The inability to make yourself understood is the real problem. The hanging figures show a fragile and precarious state. That's expressed by the hanging on a thread.
You have spent several periods of your life when you were living in relative obscurity. Were these times more difficult, or easier, than the times like today when you are celebrated as one of the major artists of the 20th century?
I have always worked and never really stopped. I have never worked for anyone but myself. I had faith in what I was doing. This is not to say that I haven't been discouraged at some points over the years. I can get depressed. But I know that my art will save me. I have always stated that I am a long distance runner. and a lonely runner. and that's the way I like it.
The List and the Fruitmarket Gallery have joined forces to offer readers 15% off Louise Bourgeois' new book, Stitches in Time, normally priced £12.50. Simply quote 'List' offer when purchasing the book at the gallery bookshop. This offer is valid until 30 April. Not valid in conjunction with any other offers.
16 THE LIST 4 18 Mar 2004