A Conversation with Louise Bourgeois , New York, New York

On a Sunday afternoon in March, I had the pleasure of accompanying Brent Howard, studio assistant to Louise Bourgeois, to her salon. Armed with chocolate cupcakes and a tape recorder, I entered the Bourgeois residence with the hopes of asking some questions and getting some answers. The crowd present in the little afternoon soiree varied from young artists and admirers to senior curators and French business men. What follows is part conversation, part interview, with lots of cocktails and ice-cream sticks being passed around in Louise Bourgeois’ drawing room that sunny Sunday afternoon. It was quite a privilege to witness Ms. Bourgeois in action.
Sari Carel: I was wondering if you could describe the academic and artistic climate at the time when you were in school. Having spent so much time in art school myself, I am very interested in the changes in academic environments that art schools promote in different periods.
Louise Bourgeois: I will start by saying I love all my teachers and have always loved all my teachers. I love people who teach me something. And that goes throughout my whole life. I married my husband because he knew more than I did and I could learn from him. Let’s put it like this, at the basis of my affection, if someone doesn’t have anything to teach me, I am not attracted to them. I am talking about men now.
SC So was it very academic, your schooling?
LB Leger was one of my teachers and I got an education for nothing. Usually if you want education you have to pay for it. Fair enough. Even in the world of experience if you want to learn something it costs you something. Leger used to teach in Paris at the time of the depression. There were hundreds of Americans in Paris trying to get into the art schools. Everybody wanted to enter the studios of two or three masters and Fernand Leger was one of them. All these Americans were coming over, and since I had learned English since I was this tall [measuring with hand few inches from table], I could go and translate very easily. These French masters did not speak English and they needed somebody to translate for them, and I could. So that is how I went to school. There were a lot of artists in Paris who made a living in different ways, being an artist does not mean making a living. To be an artists is a privilege and to make a living is a duty. . . unless you are married.
So Fernand Leger, who never paid his rent right away, he never paid his rent, had opened his studio in Paris to Americans who could pay, and he asked me to translate the classes. The Americans would say, “I want this I want that”, and he was not gifted for languages and he would say to me, “Louise what is it they want, I don't understand what they want?” And so it was my role to explain it. And then, after I would explain - he was a Normand, and we know the Normands, you cannot pin them to anything - he would say “. . .Ah, maybe yes. . . maybe no . . .”
Paulo Herkenhoff: What did he say about your paintings?
LB He said, “Louise, you are not a painter, you are a sculptor,” because the way things go round and round in the painting.
SC Looks like you took his advice.
LB Ah, yes.
SC But you continued to paint afterwards.
LB Yes, for a long time, yes, I was painting. I was satisfied with painting. When you go from painting to sculpture like this [motioning spirals in the air] it means you are aggressive. You want to twist the neck of this person. That’s it. That’s why you become a sculptor. Let me see your hands. . . Ah they are so clean. I became a sculptor because it allowed me to express emotions that I was embarrassed to express before.
SC That were embarrassing in painting?
LB No, no it is not a matter of embarrassment, it is a matter of gesture. When you paint it is a soft gesture. You have a brush, you have millions of brushes, and it is a caressing gesture [demonstrating].
SC So the source of all this aggression is guilt, or it goes the other way around?
LB No, no! Don’t mix two different things together, apples and oranges.
SC Each has their own respective places.
LB Right.
SC Do you like movies?
LB Movies? No.
SC Can I ask you something else?
LB You can try.
SC I remember you saying that you are lucky for not being discovered by the art market for quite a while.
LB I was a long distance runner, I did not need success to make myself work. I could work all by myself completely, completely unknown. For years and years, maybe 15-20 years. The proof is that all the sculptures I made in Italy, I stored them on a piece of land at the end of Long Island. Because if you work and you don’t have to sell immediately how are you going to do it, where are you going to put all the work? It was in the Hamptons. I was very lucky that nobody stole it, that nobody wanted it.
SC Now it is different . . .
LB People knew who I was but that does not mean that I sold. A lot of artists are quite well known, but so what, nothing moves. That is why they have to have a job on the side. I taught everywhere, but it is not easy, because to teach takes so much of your energy, that there is not very much energy left for your own work.
SC So how long did you teach for?
LB Well it would be interesting to know where I taught. My favorite school for example, was SVA. SVA is very famous.
PH Why did you like it?
LB It’s a good question. . . why did I like it so much. . .? Because at the time they were teaching printing and sculpture and today all they are teaching is the computer, nothing else. Everything is computers. Nothing will get you a job except a computer. . . Is that true?
SC Well, Brent has a job. How does it feel having all these essays, books and articles being written about you?
LB Well, I count the mistakes. Translators are famous for making mistakes. They know you are not going to understand the mistakes.
SC What did you do when you were a translator?
LB That is a very good question. It is very funny that you say that.

SC Since the Americans didn’t understand Leger and Leger couldn’t care less what they were saying, it left you with room for free interpretation.
LB Well, I guess I took the time to repeat myself three times.
The origin of my knowledge of English, such as it is, comes from my father always having a mistress. This was way back. And if he made the mistress pregnant he would ship her back to England on the spot. He would take her to whatever it was, there was not a tunnel at the time, and ship her back, maybe by plane, straight to England so he would not be accused.
SC And that’s how you learned English?
LB Do you see the connection?
SC Yes. I saw a picture of you hanging out in the Mudd Club.
LB Oh, yes.
SC A very good picture, you look very stylish. Did you frequent the place?
LB Yes, a lot, it was a very good place, but it was very long ago. Everybody was there.
SC Did you go to other places?
L.B. Yes there was a place called CBGB’S. Do you know a place like that, does it mean anything to you?
Brent Howard: Absolutely!
LB We went there for the music. It was good, lots of jazz.
SC Is there contemporary art that you are interested in and like?
LB Yes, I like everybody. I don’t collect. It’s strange that a lot of artists collect works of art.
SC What kind of differences do you see between the way art history recreates the times and artists which you have known in person and the reality of the situation as you remember it?
LB Oh absolutely, there are differences. For instance Miro is portrayed as a famous genius, right? Actually, Miro was a dumbwit. Or Matisse, he was an easel painter, going to different hotels.
BH We have mythologies. For instance the Pollock movie, he is a drunken, free spirited, troubled genius in the movie with all the grandeur and pathos that come with that.
LB There is a part in the movie that I witnessed first hand.
PH They are in this big party at Peggy Guggenheim’s and Louise asks Jackson a question and he walks away and pisses in the fire place.
LB He was a speech dit, it was difficult for him to talk. So instead of talking, he let go.

SC Do you think that was his answer to your question?

LB Yes, that was his answer. Obviously the question was too difficult for him.
BH Not as smart as they make him sound. . .
LB Exactly, he wasn’t able to answer.
PH Basquiat pisses too in his movie.
SC Yeah, outside Schnabel’s apartment.

PH I guess visual males tend to piss. . .
SC Do you mind if I take a picture?
LB Yes, I do mind, very much. I am tired of seeing pictures of myself alone. I have had enough of those.
SC Can I take a picture of the group?

Sari Carel
New York, New York
2001