My interview with Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois is one of the most prominent artists of this century. Her career as a sculptor, painter and graphics artist extends from the 1930s to the present day. Her art is based on trauma in her early childhood. In her own words, the jealousy and hatred which she felt toward her father and his mistress are always present in her work. The breadth of her work never ceases to amaze. Her sculptures are symbolic: 'images', 'cages', 'cells' and provocative studies of 'multibreasts' or phallus-like figures. They can all be seen as metaphors for loneliness, violence and dread. She is a lone figure who has never allowed herself to be classified by any particular art movement.

It is a February morning in New York City, the rain is coming down and the wind is strong. I am on my way to 20th Street to meet her, well aware of the fact that the task I have taken on is not an easy one. Louise Bourgeois has fascinated me for a long time. An intelligent person, she is disciplined, a visionary, with a different way of thinking - a personality whom many wonder about.

My first reaction when she opens the door, is to think how tiny she is. Dressed in black tights, brand new white sneakers and a black top, her finely shaped face seems nearly youthful. Her long ponytail and penetrating look almost makes you forget her age. She looks at me with cautious curiosity, offers me a hanger for my coat and invites me into her living room. She disappears into an adjacent room which turns out to be the kitchen. I hear various sounds and try to guess what she is doing.

"Anything I have to say, I have already said in all the books in the bookshelf. So many people want to see me. Sometimes I have to limit the visits to spare my strength, or I wouldn't have the energy to work," she says, adding "creative work requires the utmost concentration... Do you want some tea?"

While I wait, I look around the room. Everything has a brownish-grey look about it - the walls, the bookshelves filled with catalogues, the books, the magazines, even the sun-bleached curtains and the worn floor.

"I try to find order in the chaos," says Louise Bourgeois. She is standing in the doorway, two cups of tea waiting on the table. Her use of language reminds me of a scientist: brief, clear and concise.

I ask, "when I saw your work in Venice I was surprised and moved by its strong connection to your past. Can you comment on that?"

"Everything I have created up to now has been inspired by my early life."

"There is a magical force, a twisted and unpleasant beauty in your work which is difficult to define. What role does intuition play in your work?"

"My intuition always comes from the same source, in other words I return to the same theme time and time again and try to engross myself in the problem which I am tackling. It is primarily a matter of trusting your instincts. I work with many sculptures at the same time - if I feel uncertain in a process, I move on to another sculpture or start on a new one. I work in a spiral motion. I like spirals - a gradual and laborious ascent and processing of the thought and the idea. The spiral form also reminds me of my childhood: after washing the tapestries, we would wring them out and lay them out to dry. In my dreams, I would try to rid myself of my father's mistress by wringing her neck. The spiral represents control over chaos, but also fragility and fear. And fear is what makes the world go around."

"Do you feel exhilirated, apprehensive or insecure when you begin a new sculpture, like so many painters do when they face an empty canvas?", I wonder.

"I am not afraid or empty - I am filled with the need to express myself. I feel the need to channel my feelings and thoughts, for my own sake, not for the sake of an audience."

"How important is the choice of material for you?"

"I am not interested in the material, since the ideas which stem from my subconscious move me forward. The concepts are related to a fear which I am trying to master. I use only those materials which I find suitable for the moment. Materials and tools serve only to help the artist achieve their goal. I am currently participating in a group exhibit called 'Cannibalism in Art' which will be shown in Sao Paolo, Brazil in which I emphasize the importance of the concept and the idea, rather than the choice of material."

"How would you describe your way of working?" I ask.

"As I work, I listen to my subconscious, most of all. Only once my work is complete do I understand what it is I want to express, and I think to myself, "oh, that's what I wanted to say!". I believe that's what we call intution. Artists must have their own boundaries within which they feel that they can move freely. Recently, I have been working with an art magazine called 'Irony' where I am responsible for the production of a whole issue. It is to be published in Paris in various languages."

"What influences you in your creative process?"

"Life itself is sufficiently interesting and intimidating to be the basis of any art work. Music influences me greatly. It has more to offer to me than reading poetry. I like to listen to jazz, and classical as well as modern music, but I prefer to work in complete silence."

"Do you think you would have received recognition earlier in your life as an artist if you had been a man?"

"Since I am not a man, I can't answer that question. I do not feel that I have suffered by being a woman artist, although I was recognized for my art very, very late in life."

"What advice would you give to a young artist?" I wonder.

"You have to be original. Curiosity is essential," replies Louise Bourgeois.

(Kristina Redz, New York, February 1998)