Wolf Prize Laureate in Arts 2002/3
“for an oeuvre, that for six decades and encompassing a remarkable range of media, has sustained aesthetic and formal innovation, intellectual complexity and contemporary relevance”.
Louise Bourgeois’ career spans the entire 20th century. Her work has contributed to the evolution of some of the most important movements in modern art – ranging from Surrealism in the 1930s, to Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, and to sculpture in “the expanded field” of installation at the end of the century. At the same time however, hers is a singular practice. Bourgeois has experimented with an extraordinary range of techniques, including drawing and printmaking, carving, casting, sewing and assemblage. She combines formal invention and virtuoso craftsmanship, with intellectual enquiry and poetic vision. Inspired by psychoanalysis, Bourgeois uses the figure – fragmented, encased, totemic or as an absent presence – to explore familial relations, gender and mythology. Although she draws on autobiography, her narratives have transcended the personal, to speak to successive generations. Bourgeois’ achievement is all the more remarkable, in having flourished within a male dominated culture.
Bourgeois was born in Paris, in 1911. Having been awarded a Baccalaureate in Philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1932, she decided to move into the arts and studied art history at the L’Ecole du Louvre. Working as an assistant in numerous ateliers, she combined her childhood experiences of working in her family’s tapestry studio with learning the classical techniques of painting and sculpture. Bourgeois moved to New York in 1939, where she made her US debut with a print exhibition, at the Brooklyn Museum. Making exhibitions of prints, paintings, and, in 1949 her first show of sculptures, Bourgeois became part of New York’s avant garde. Much as she broke down divisions between media, she also crossed disciplines, collaborating not only with numerous other artists, but also with practitioners from the worlds of dance and theatre.
A small selection of the huge number of group exhibitions featuring Bourgeois’ work, is a testament to the sustained contemporaneity of her practice. Her work was shown alongside Surrealists such as Breton and Tanguy in the 1940s, while in the 1950s it was featured in surveys of American abstract painters. In 1966 Lucy Lippard included her work in a celebration of new “conceptual practices”, which included Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman. She was featured in the 1972 Whitney Biennale; in the Centre Pompidou’s Magicien de la Terre, in 1982; Documenta IX in 1992, and Documenta XI in 2002.
Bourgeois was the first living woman artist to have a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1982, and she represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1993. She also inaugurated the founding of London’s Tate Modern in 2000, with a series of monumental works, fusing sculpture with architecture for the Unilever Series Turbine Hall commission. Bourgeois’ signature giant spider instantly provided an informal logo for the new museum.
This prize also recognizes the artist’s importance as a writer; and as a voice against oppression. In the 1940s, Bourgeois contributed of her works to help the French Underground, and in 1949, along with Marcel Duchamp, she co-curated a show of anti-Nazi poetry and writings. In the 1970s, she became active in the feminist movement, continuing into the 21st century, as an icon for women artists around the world.