It is one thing to know that Louise Bourgeois made paintings. There are often a few of them in surveys of her long career as a sculptor, which reached its apogee in the 1980s and ’90s. It is something else to learn that in the 1940s — her first decade in New York — she made more than 100 paintings. Nearly half of them are now heating up a large gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with raw emotion, awkward paint handling and adamantine colors — most often brilliant to dark shades of blue and especially red. In fact, this show is an insightful meditation on the roiling significance of red, whose many associations include blood, passion, love, courage, joy, anger, violence.
Nearly half the works in “Louise Bourgeois: Paintings” are lent by the artist’s foundation; almost a third have not been exhibited in decades, if ever. Together they illuminate some of the recurring themes explored in the sculptures, but also some of the very structures of these works, which began appearing as motifs of her paintings in the mid-1940s.
And yet the show, organized by Clare Davies, an associate curator at the Met, also presents us with what is in many ways a whole new artist and a new kind of artist to contend with, one whose balance of formal sophistication with emotional intensity was rare, especially as it concerned early memories, motherhood, art making and their conflict. These themes are evident in the four “Femme Maison” (Woman House) paintings of 1946-47, which each combine a house with a woman’s body; they would be endemic to 1970s feminist art. But in the 1940s, Bourgeois’s subjects had few precedents in Western modern art. (An obvious exception is Paula Modersohn-Becker.)
Now, Bourgeois’s achievements in two dimensions will have to be factored into the history of modern painting. She was in the heart of advanced art, although, unlike many other women — Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan — she was not interested in mastering the Abstract Expressionist style (or scale). But the question remains: Did Bourgeois’s areas of plain saturated color have any effect on this style, or on its dedicated colorists like Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, who were edging toward maturity during this period? Perhaps Bourgeois’s reds and blues might occupy a position similar to that of Janet Sobel, the Ukrainian-born New Jersey artist credited with making dripped-paint abstractions before Pollock, who had seen her paintings.
Everything happened very fast. In the spring or summer of 1938, she set up a small art gallery in a section of her family’s textile gallery on Boulevard St. Germain. On Sept. 12 she married an American man whom she had met in her shop in August. This was Robert Goldwater, a young art historian, teacher and critic who moved in the upper echelons of the New York cultural sphere, where he was especially known for writing about the relationship between so-called primitive art and the contemporary kind.
At the end of October, Bourgeois was in New York, tormented by guilt for leaving her family so suddenly (father, older sister, younger brother), and also missing Paris where she had been learning to be an artist, working in a representational style derived in part from Picasso’s paintings of Marie-Thérèse Walter.
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One of her teachers in Paris was the painter Fernand Léger who bluntly told Bourgeois that she should be a sculptor. Bourgeois seems not to have paid much heed, yet by 1947 odd, spindly, possibly figurative sculptures were appearing in her paintings. By the 1980s and early 1990s, she would become world famous, representing the United States at the 1993 Venice Biennale, and best known for sculptures of gigantic bronze arachnids titled “Maman” (“Mama”). Or as one visitor to the Met’s show explained to her companion, “You know, the big spiders.”
Life in New York, a new city with a rising art scene, must have been a shock. And there were new responsibilities. In 1940 she and her husband adopted a 3-year-old French orphan named Alain, two months before she gave birth to Jean-Louis. Within 15 months, their third son, Michel, arrived. Luckily, she later said, her husband was a feminist. It is possible that all this newness jolted Bourgeois into a different place in her art, one that jettisoned the niceties of style and paint handling and operated from basic emotional needs. The first painting in the exhibition, from around 1938, is “Runaway Girl,” which may reflect Bourgeois’s sadness about her abrupt departure from Paris. It shows her as a doll-like creature with long blond hair, floating in a clear blue sky above two layers of mountain ranges — one in white paint, one outlined in charcoal. Beyond the sky is an ocean, limned in charcoal and pencil, where a child is swimming; on the opposite shore is a white house that may be her family’s home outside Paris, where they maintained a workshop to restore tapestries.
It is a measure of the busyness of Bourgeois’s life that only a few paintings here date from the early 1940s. Even so, they powerfully reflect her conviction that she has something to say and her own way of saying it. From around 1940, “Confrérie” depicts six dark silhouettes that seem to wander across an expanse of red, looking toward another house. Above it hangs a magical multicolored cloud, a memory catcher whose flickering colors evoke the painted dome of a church. In “The House of My Brothers” (1940-42), the action moves inside, into a faceted, transparent structure where the rooms and their occupants are visible.
Hereafter there are only a few signs of the natural landscape. The settings tend to be architectural or artificial spaces: rooms, stages, boxes, roofs or courtyards. It becomes clear that the paintings are mostly self-portraits and increasingly sculpture-haunted. In “Self-Portrait” from around 1947, Bourgeois gives herself a purplish wolf man face, which seems an admission of guilt or shame, and a striking black-and-white striped dress whose central feature resembles one of the early sculptures in painted wood that Bourgeois called Personnages.
Other paintings are rather pure expressions of maternal anxiety and loneliness: “Red Night” (1945-47) shows a woman and three tiny faces huddling in a bed floating on a vortical field of red. Opposite is an untitled painting in pink and light blue, a comet with an open maw and tails of long hair swoops into the foreground over a factory with a towering chimney from which three small figures reach toward this terrifying creature. And some of Bourgeois’s paintings refer, intentionally or not, to larger horrors than herself — a woman desperate to be an artist.
“Regrettable Incident in the Louvre Palace” (1947) recalls an event — never divulged by the artist — that took place when she was a docent at the museum. But the building’s stark barrackslike structure can quickly bring to mind the Holocaust or the Soviet Gulag. One of the brightest of the red paintings, an untitled work from 1948, depicts Bourgeois’s first sculpture studio: the roof of the apartment building where her family lived on East 18th Street. Atop this gleaming red structure is a veritable Felliniesque parade of bright, floating forms, perhaps a glimpse of the promise three dimensions held for the artist. And in “Roof Song” (1946-48), a comic image of the artist, grinning widely, her hair resembling wings — stands on a wonder of a red chimney, looking a bit like an ancient idol carved in stone. On the right is the source of her pride, black with touches of red: a narrow totemic Bourgeois sculpture. This radiant, astounding show further disrupts the history of New York painting in the 1940s as a linear, mostly male endeavor.
Louise Bourgeois: Paintings
Through Aug. 7 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.