Louise Bourgeois was known for her intimate, obsessive handwork. Maybe you’ve heard the lore around her relationship to fabric. She worked with both parents from a young age in the family’s tapestry restoration workshop, where one of her tasks was to draw in missing sections of tapestries that needed repair. The act of mending became a recurring impetus throughout her life’s work as an artist. She cut up, re-sewed, and printed over clothes, napkins, tablecloths — household remnants she kept from her youth — seeking to invoke and heal her childhood wounds. Her sewn works often celebrated her mother as a loving, protective figure, and vilified her domineering, unfaithful father.
During the fifty years she worked with fabric, Bourgeois created some of the most celebrated artworks in the medium. A recent exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in London gathered Bourgeois’s last decade of fabric work. (For those who missed it, I highly recommend the beautiful catalog.)
© Louise Bourgeois Trust, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Peter Mallet
Bourgeois worked towards this show before her death earlier this year, and some critics have suggested that it is more peaceful than her previous retrospectives. These fabric works do have an intimate, unimposing quality, in stark contrast with the gigantic steel spider sculptures, looming outside of major museums around the world, for which she might be most well-known.
Certain long-standing motifs did seem to me less tortured. Her familiar spiral (seen in the image at top) was rendered in blue and white over blue and white dots, which made for an almost cheery combination. In previous work Bourgeois connected spirals to the spidery webs spun by her protective mother, and to the rage she felt towards her father’s mistress. “When a tapestry had to be washed in the river, it took four people to hoist it out and twist it. Twisting is very important for me. When I dreamt of getting rid of the mistress, it was by twisting her neck,” she said. In another work, yellow and white striped fabric was cut and sewn into a polygon, beaming outward like a vibrant beach umbrella or two-toned kaleidoscope, instead of retreating inward like the psychological probing for which Bourgeois is known.
Photo, left by © Louise Bourgeois Trust, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Photo by Christopher Burke
© Louise Bourgeois Trust, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Photo by Christopher Burke
In some pieces, three or four unadulterated rectangles of fabric were simply sewn together. I found their charming and sophisticated color combinations to be elegant. Framed in wood and grouped together, they were dazzling. Several works make use of weaving, including a velvety, black and blue piece.
© Louise Bourgeois Trust, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Christopher Burke
I found the collaged works, in which Bourgeois had sewn floral or pod-like shapes over patched fabrics, to be the most exciting fabric works on view. Though they may have emerged from a powerful rage, they were surprisingly playful and unburdened.
Though Bourgeois often denied her enormous influence — she once said, “The feminists took me as a role model, as a mother. It bothers me. I am not interested in being a mother. I am still a girl trying to understand myself” — the brilliant colors, abstract patterning, and meditative handwork in this exhibition are sure to inspire generations of artists and crafters to come.
Left: © Louise Bourgeois Trust, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Christopher Burke
Sabrina Gschwandtner is an artist, writer and curator whose work bridges the fields of conceptual art, handcraft, activism and social history. She received her BA in art/semiotics from Brown University, and an MFA from Bard College. Sabrina’s book, KnitKnit: Profiles and Project’s from Knitting’s New Wave, was published by Stewart, Tabori and Chang in 2007. She has written articles, reviews and creative text for a variety of publications including American Craft, Cabinet, Fiberarts, Interweave Knits, Craft, Rowan, Selvedge, Vogue Knitting, the Millennium Film Journal, and the Journal of Modern Craft. Read more about Sabrina in her profile.