Edges of Resistance: The Language of Art in Louise Bourgeois and Nancy Spero

Two books, two artists, two women: Louise Bourgeois Destruction of the Father/Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews, 1923-1997 (MIT Press, 1998) and Codex Spero: Nancy Spero, Selected Writings and Interviews 1950-2008 (Roma Publications, Amsterdam, 2008). Two books of the artists’ own words in conversation and writing where the language and the voices are lyric, keening, strident, warlike, seductive, raucous, carefully considered and informed, operatic and celebratory. In an artist’s statement that is like a manifesto, Nancy Spero wrote in 1990: “To take back the body not only from men who tried to possess and control it, but also modern conceptual theorists–female as well as male–who tried to deny it.” In a conversation with Bill Beckley in 1997, Louise Bourgeois said, “Since the fears of the past are connected with functions of the body they re-appear through the body. For me, sculpture is the body. My body is my sculpture.”

In both books the language is intelligent, idiosyncratic, passionate and precisely their own. In looking at life and a life’s work, it’s not possible to isolate elements of an individual’s character or personality; a life is a seamless entity whatever the interruptions may have been. It’s not a Linnaean classification. With the work–how to say with exactitude where there’s a stop and a starting? Issues, topics, characteristics, individual works, sustained series, positions held, provocations, flashes, subjects repeated or singular are elements that emerged from the two books. At the same time, both are fragmentary and richly representative of the two artists. Both, it seems, share a sensitivity and a sensibility I would describe as profoundly awake, eyes open, and both did indeed work against sleep, Bourgeois saying, “my life has been regulated by insomnia,” the remarkable body of work “The Insomnia Drawings” attesting to that condition. And Spero, with three young children, seizing the night hours in which to do her work. Both working under cover of darkness, a protective cover allowing latitude to engage the subjects they wished and at the same time an obscuring darkness that meant they were often overlooked or found themselves working in isolation from the sanctioned art world. Asked if she’d ever felt discriminated against, Bourgeois responded that she had felt so when she’d begun to submit her work to exhibition juries, as much by women gallery owners as by men. What had she done about it: “I [have] brooded.” This sense of being overlooked or invisible, silenced, was felt much before she began a career–as a child in fact–when she spoke about her father and her inability to be heard. “Way back I could never fight an argument with my father,” she said in 1993 for a documentary film for Arena Films, “because either he made fun of me, of my being only a girl, or he made fun of me … because he had a cruel sense of humour and I could not answer him.” As for the world away from the shaping imprint of family, in a series of “Statements” published in 1979 by Simon & Schuster, Bourgeois said, “It was just that I had the feeling the art scene belonged to the men, and that I was in some way invading their domain. Therefore the work was done and hidden away. I felt more comfortable hiding it.”

In a “Statement of Plans #3” written around 1972, Nancy Spero wrote, “Until recently I have been quite alienated from the art world and rarely exhibited my work. As a woman artist I felt the implicit disapproval of society–the stigma of daring to produce an individualistic oeuvre. Thus my work in the past (for the most part) has remained hidden, isolated from the externalizing pragmatic forces that control the art world.” On the “Black Paintings” done in Paris in the early ’60s she observed almost 40 years later: “I was silencing myself but what were the choices? Women artists didn’t count.”…

See Issue 110 to read the entire essay!

Volume 28, Number 2

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #110, published June 2009.

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