There was this terrific, intense identification with the sculpture. I visualized a caryatid or a woman cut in two…But I kept thinking: ‘You’re not a caryatid, you’re not an animal, you’re not passive. You’re active. Don’t let this happen to you.’
- Louise Bourgeois, 1992
Burning in Water - New York is pleased to present Louise Bourgeois x Günther Förg: To Unravel A Torment. The exhibition includes Louise Bourgeois’ What Is The Shape of This Problem? portfolio, composed of nine diptychs, installed in accordance with the artist’s original instructions. Additional works by Louise Bourgeois include a unique self-portrait of the artist on vintage linen, while the rear gallery is devoted to Günther Förg’s WWM suite of large-scale prints.
Produced in 1999, What Is The Shape of This Problem? - exhibited here in its entirety - reflects a transitional moment in Louise Bourgeois’ career and life. The series has precedents stretching back to Bourgeois’ earliest bodies of work, but also portends the trajectory of her artistic output in the final decade of her life.
Louise Bourgeois’ interest in the print medium was lifelong. She inherited an early appreciation for the medium from her father, who was an avid print collector. Before immigrating to the US, Louise Bourgeois, Caryatid, 2001. Bourgeois had opened her own print gallery in Aubusson in 1938, and she later opened another print gallery, Erasmus Books and Prints, in New York in the mid-1950s.
During her artistic career spanning seven decades, Bourgeois’ own productivity as a printmaker was largely restricted to two eras: the 1940s and the late 1990s-2010. Bourgeois’ seminal early portfolio He Disappeared Into Complete Silence (1946), which was the first of her works to be acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, was a series of eight diptychs pairing colorful architectural imagery with text-based images. The motif of woman-as-edifice is one that Bourgeois would later recapitulate in the 2000s in works such as Self-Portrait as a Caryatid (2001) and Pregnant Caryatid (2001). With What Is The Shape Of This Problem?, Bourgeois re-visited the same format of paired illustration and text images that she had used over fifty years earlier.
Louise Bourgeois’ artistic practice underwent significant transformations in the late 1990s. Increasingly debilitated from profound agoraphobia, subsequently compounded by progressive physical frailty, she became largely unwilling to leave her home and studio at 347 West 24th St. However, her working relationships with a number of master printers flourished. Bourgeois maintained a printing press in her basement that she used to produce experimental works, and collaborating printmakers came to her home to work with her. During her final decade, the chronic insomnia that had afflicted Bourgeois for decades worsened, and she increasingly spent her sleepless hours drawing elaborate, repetitive designs that she would then incorporate into her prints. Acutely reflective of the artist’s own emotional state and constantly shifting psychological terrain, such abstractions were paired with corresponding text fragments to create the nine diptychs in What Is The Shape Of This Problem?.
Bourgeois’ materials during this period largely became items that she had in her home, particularly clothing and textiles that she had collected over decades. Having labored at a young age as a seamstress in her family’s business restoring Medieval and Renaissance tapestries, working with textiles was a profoundly ingrained behavior that was directly linked to the childhood experiences that Bourgeois considered to be fundamental to both her emotional vicissitudes and her corresponding artistic expression. Bourgeois conceived her life and her art to be inseparable dimensions of her own being. Accordingly, Bourgeois saw working with textiles as a quasipsychoanalytic endeavor that served as a means of excavating and attempting to redress her own past. Speaking of the artist’s shift towards textiles in the late 1990s, Germano Celant indicated the following:
It is as much reincarnation of her past and her childhood as a confirmation of her relationship with memory. Her visual approach to fabrics transforms decorative accessories into emotional and personal references, which…create representations of a tormented and, at the same time powerful, womanhood.
Bourgeois’ works are complemented by a series of dark, enigmatic prints by Günther Förg: WWM (1990). Large, monochromatic lithographs rendered with black pigment, the works recall both Forg’s monochromatic paintings from the 1970s and his seminal “lead” paintings. For Förg, lithography yielded similar tactile satisfactions to working with lead - allowing him to render images from a black expanse by furrowing, agitating and accreting his materials. The WWM prints constitute a rare example of later, non-photographic work by Förg that features overtly figurative elements. Encoded within the black background of the prints are an array of ambiguous anatomical and symbolic references, including hands, teeth, masks and heads.
Typically thought of as a resolutely abstract painter, Förg is most frequently associated with a geometric approach to abstraction elaborated by his key influencers, such as Blinky Palermo, Barnett Newman, and Ellsworth Kelly. This conception of his work has solidified the perception of Förg as an abstract painter whose primary subject was the legacy of Modernism. However, Förg considered the group of artists with whom he was in profound dialogue to include figurative artists, particularly Edvard Munch, Philip Guston, Paul Klee and Georg Baselitz. Yet Förg saw the figurative elements in his work as archetypal rather than descriptive:
As for the figurative thing, older artists have always informed what I do. Someone like Munch is incredibly important to me and he, of course, is a figurative painter. In my own paintings, you might sense a figure - but it is not explicitly a figure. Or another example is the series of ‘Masks’ that depict human heads - but these are not portraits, not specific. They’re reduced to some kind of essence; so, on one level, you could call this abstract too.
As with the included Bourgeois works, Förg’s WWM pieces seem to offer the viewer selective, furtive glimpses into a deeply enshrouded, ultimately ineffable, psychological milieu.
Louise Bourgeois x Günther Förg: To Unravel A Torment is on view at Burning in Water - New York through April 7, 2018.