Louise Bourgeois, Sculptor of Freaky Giant Spiders, Dies at 98

Louise Bourgeois with her 1970 sculpture
Artist Louise Bourgeois poses with her 1970 marble sculpture "Eye to Eye" in New York in this 1990 handout photograph. Works by Bourgeois will be on display as part of the exhibition "Louise Bourgeois" at New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through Sept. 28. Photographer: Raimon Ramis/Louise Bourgeois Archive/Guggenheim Museum via Bloomberg News

Louise Bourgeois, an American artist whose bizarre spiders and sexually graphic sculptures propelled her to worldwide fame late in life, bringing her record sales and influence among younger artists, is dead. She was 98.

The Associated Press reported that Bourgeois died at 2:23 p.m. on May 31 at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, two days after suffering a heart attack. The death was confirmed by Wendy Williams, managing director of the Louise Bourgeois Studio.

In 1982, after decades of struggle, Bourgeois received a retrospective exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, thrusting her from the margins to a pinnacle among living artists.

The MOMA show gave the French-born artist “long overdue recognition,” critic Donald Kuspit wrote in “Bourgeois,” his 1988 book. “She is clearly the major woman artist working today.”

More museum exhibits of Bourgeois’s work followed. Crowds thronged her shows, from Washington and Tokyo to Paris and Russia’s Hermitage, where curious children were photographed staring up at her scary, 30-foot spider.

The huge spider becomes “more frightening,” wrote Joan Acocella, a New Yorker magazine critic, “when you find out its name -- ‘Maman’ (Mommy).”

Sinister Sex

Bourgeois exhibits weren’t for the faint-hearted. Spiders, “phallic breasts,” penises, conjoined sex organs, deformed copulating couples, sinister rooms -- these were among the works that Bourgeois sent to museums in her 90s.

In 2008, New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum held a “decidedly Oedipal retrospective” of the artist, said Bloomberg Muse critic Linda Yablonsky. It showed how, in a 70-year career, she learned “not just to exorcise but to love her demons.”

Bourgeois’s 2006 sales made her the best-paid living woman artist after a buyer paid $4 million for an 8-foot spider, said London-based auction house Christie’s International. She eclipsed the record in 2008, when another spider fetched $4.5 million.

She was small, looked fragile, yet had an “iron will” to create art, Yablonsky said. Over time the personality she became might have been her greatest creation.

Born in Paris on Dec. 25, 1911, Bourgeois traced her early angst to being told that the doctor blamed her mother for ruining his Christmas festivities. “I was a pain in the ass when I was born,” she said.

Left Bankers

Her parents lived on Boulevard Saint-Germain above their tapestry gallery. When a draftsman didn’t show up one day, the teenage Louise was called on to make sketches and help her mother restore a tapestry.

“I became an expert at drawing feet,” she said. “That is how my art got started.”

While her father roamed the country for tapestries and antiques, mother minded the gallery and their three children. Their long separations and his on-the-road romances led to the childhood trauma that later ruled her art, Bourgeois said.

Bourgeois was 11 when her father brought Sadie, her young English tutor, into their home as his mistress. She stayed 10 years, an arrangement her mother “tolerated,” the artist said.

Once Sadie was installed, her father became a blowhard who made the family a “captive audience” at dinner, Bourgeois said. “And the more he showed off, the smaller we felt.”

Teacher Leger

A good student, Bourgeois found refuge in school. She earned a baccalaureate at a top lycee, studied math at the Sorbonne and art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Ecole du Louvre and other schools, and in artists’ studios, notably with Fernand Leger, a sculptor she called her best teacher.

At 26, she married Robert Goldwater, an American art historian she met in Paris who “put my father in his place,” she said, deflating him after a dinner-table joke by asking, “Is that supposed to be funny?”

They sailed to New York in 1938, Goldwater as an academic specializing in primitive art, Bourgeois eager to study painting at Manhattan’s Art Students League.

By 1945, she had 12 paintings in a solo gallery show. Her work also appeared in group shows along with such artists as Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell.

Bourgeois’s “subconscious personal motivations had begun to emerge” in 1947 with her “Femme-Maison” paintings, noted Deborah Dye, the curator who secured her 1982 MOMA break-through show.

Home Bodies

The so-called Woman House pictures depicted houses, not heads, atop female bodies, an early feminist outcry about domestic imprisonment.

Bourgeois turned to sculpture in the late 1940s as better for wringing art from her psychic demons. Early work featured carvings called “Breasted Woman” and “Dagger Child,” and modernistic pieces like a 6-foot-high row of linked wood strips titled “The Blind Leading the Blind.”

She survived a tough grilling about leftist artists by authorities to become a U.S. citizen in 1951 -- the year her father died. She withdrew into art then, with only one solo show until the mid-1960s.

Bourgeois experimented for more than a decade, moving from wood to work with cement, plaster, bronze and marble, as well as latex, plastics, metals, fabrics -- and junk dumped into her New York backyard.

She reappeared with pieces like “Portrait,” “Landscape” and “Sleep” -- odd names for stuff with sexual overtones that she denied. “I wouldn’t say my work is erotic,” she said.

Protected Art

There was no question about “Fillette,” or Little Girl, the innocent name she gave in 1968 to her most outrageous concoction -- a two-foot-long phallus made from plaster and latex. And the title? It was like a little girl, she insisted, “an extremely delicate thing that needs to be protected.”

Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe snapped her 14 years later smiling widely and holding “Fillette” under her arm like a big baton. Her happy face was the frontispiece of MOMA’s 1982 catalog; “Fillette” was cropped out of the infamous picture.

Goldwater died in 1973 and, by coincident or not, his wife’s sex-themed sculptures appeared on the market. In 1974 came “The Destruction of the Father,” a large latex-and-plaster piece meant “to exorcise the fear” her father aroused at dinner by indicating his dismemberment by the family.

Afterward, “I felt like a different person,” she said. “It really changed me.”

Willing to Wait

Bourgeois said she’d kept work that had gone unsold over the years, storing some and combining other pieces -- male with female, plaster and latex -- and reworking marble or bronze.

“When the dealers finally came to look me up, all the work was on the shelves,” she told Kuspit.

Honors also came. In 1977 she stood alongside Gerald R. Ford as Yale University awarded her and the former president honorary doctorates. Many tributes followed. The once-ignored artist had three solo shows within a three-year period and “entered the mainstream of American art,” Art News stated.

Well into her 80s and 90s, Bourgeois was in the vanguard of postmodern art. Her work represented the U.S. at the 1993 Venice Biennale. “Maman” and her three 30-foot towers (for visitors to climb) inaugurated London’s new Tate Modern museum in 2000.

A crouching spider guarded Paris’s Pompidou Center in 2008 as it showed Bourgeois’s spooky “cells” -- rooms with objects from a past that “can give us the willies,” a critic said.

“Only the younger generation likes me and understands me,” she said, sniffing at older colleagues and critics alike.

Whatever her other fears, she wasn’t afraid to contradict herself. In her autobiography, “Destruction of the Father Reconstruction of the Father,” Bourgeois said an artist’s words must “be taken cautiously” since “a work of art has to stand by itself.”


She ignored that warning in the 384-page book’s letters, journals, writings, interviews, and articles about her life and art, including a diary dating to 1923. The 1998 book was edited by two academics.

Among other things, she first claimed her art wasn’t erotic, later saw its “sexual suggestiveness,” then said it was “always erotic,” finally admitting eroticism was the root of all her work.

A key piece was her magazine photo-essay, “Child Abuse,” with pictures of Papa, tutor Sadie and herself on vacation. One line told her life story:

“Everyday you have to abandon your past or accept it and then if you cannot accept it you become a sculptor.”

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