Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeouis, Fears, 1992. Wood and iron. Diameter: 30 inches. Photo credit: Will Brown.

In 1991, FWM invited Louise Bourgeois to participate in an exhibition of artist-designed scarves. Inspired by the vastness of the 75-foot long print tables in FWM’s studio, Bourgeois decided to make a “scarf” of enormous proportion that would eventually wrap the walls of a spiral exhibition space in much the same way a scarf wraps around a neck.

Bourgeois selected a story that she had written in 1947 to print in red pigment on white cotton voile:

A man and a woman lived together. On one evening he did not come back from work. And she waited. She kept on waiting and she grew littler and littler. Later, a neighbor stopped by out of friendship and there he found her, in the armchair, the size of a pea.

For the installation of She Lost It, Bourgeois placed a sculpture—a wooden ball with metal shackle, inscribed with the word “Fears”—midway through the spiral exhibition space. Circling through the gallery, one reaches the end of the story and the end of the spiral at the same time, which adds to the psychological poignancy of the installation’s themes of love, loss, abandonment, and fear.

Printed on cotton gauze, another version of She Lost It was used for a one-time performance held at FWM in 1992. Choreographed by the artist, the production began with models (staff members and friends of the artist) parading across the stage to Contemporary dance music wearing slips and undergarments embroidered with text written by Bourgeois. A figure enshrouded in the gauze “scarf” came onto the stage, and with the assistance of the models, his shroud was slowly unwrapped so that it could be read by the audience before being rewound around an embracing couple. At the performance’s end, the couple stood wrapped in the narrative, and the original figure was revealed as a man holding a pea in his hand.

Printmaking is integral to FWM’s history and remains a vital part of our mission. While away from the Museum during the COVID-19 public health crisis, our staff took the opportunity to revisit past FWM projects and ways of seeing through the Print As series.

FWM @ Home | Print As Catharsis: Louise Bourgeois, She Lost It (performance still), 1992.

“How to begin this wonderful story of working with one of the most venerable woman artists of our time? It was 1991. One afternoon we were sitting around a large wooden desk overlooking the vast print studio on the 13th floor of 1100 Vine Street. This desk belonged to our late founder and artistic director, Kippy Stroud, and we were meeting to devise a plan to invite Louise Bourgeois to be an Artist-in-Residence. Kippy thought if we invited her to be part of a traveling scarf exhibition with British painter Howard Hodgkin, she might consider it. A letter of invitation was typed by hand and sent in the mail. The following week, we were driving to New York to meet with Louise Bourgeois and her assistant Jerry Gorovoy in her Manhattan home.

As they listened intently, we talked about The Fabric Workshop and the idea for the scarf exhibition. Louise asked about the dimensions of our long printing tables. When we told her they were 70 inches wide by 25 yards in length, she declared, “That is it, I will make a scarf of those proportions and it will spiral around the walls of the gallery the way a scarf spirals around a neck.” This is how Louise Bourgeois’ residency started: in her library, hovered over a coffee table pondering the dimensions and possibilities that would lead to She Lost It, her 1992 exhibition and performance.

When an artist’s ideas are translated through the minds of creative collaborators at FWM—supported by a collective sense of trust and vision to carry them through—notions, dreams, and desires turn into groundbreaking works of art. As the project evolved, Louise decided to print a story she had written in 1947 as a single scroll on cotton voile and gauze with large red type:

A man and a woman lived together. On one evening he did not come back from work. And she waited. She kept on waiting and she grew littler and littler. Later, a neighbor stopped by out of friendship and there he found her. In the armchair. The size of a pea.

It took multiple trips to New York, two master printers, 20 large-scale screens, a team of construction technicians to print and sew an edition of 55-yard long scrolls, gallery preparators to construct spiraling walls out of sheetrock, artists, assistants, video crews, magicians, curators, art historians, longtime friends, and family to follow the vision of Louise Bourgeois and trust her genius—and we all became entangled. A man wrapped and bound in gauze, then unraveled, revealing the story to the audience, and rebound onto a man and a woman. A print that wrapped intense human emotions—a print as catharsis.”

-FWM Director of Education Christina Roberts

Artist Bio

French-American, 1911-2010. 

Louise Bourgeois was born in Paris and grew up working in her family’s tapestry restoration shop. She studied art at many schools in Paris before immigrating to the United States in 1938, continuing her studies at the Art Students League of New York. Over fifty years, Bourgeois established herself as one of the twentieth century’s most accomplished and acclaimed sculptors, one of the few women of her generation to gain international attention. In her work, she consistently experimented with a range of media (rubber, stone, bronze, wood, fabric) to symbolically explore themes of a personal nature—desire, loss, cruelty, memory, sexuality, and love. Bourgeois had her first individual exhibition in New York in 1945 (Bertha Schaefer Gallery), and since that time has had hundreds of solo exhibitions. In 1982, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, organized a retrospective exhibition that traveled to venues throughout the United States, and in 1993, she represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale. Bourgeois has been recognized with eight honorary doctoral awards, and in 1999 she received the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale.