A Conversation with
Louise Bourgeois , New York, New York
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
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. Lets put it like this,
at the basis of my affection, if someone doesnt 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. Thats it. Thats 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
LB No, no! Dont mix two different things together, apples and oranges.
SC Each has their own respective places.
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 dont 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
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 Its 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 didnt understand Leger and Leger couldnt
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 thats 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
SC Did you go to other places?
L.B. Yes there was a place called CBGBS. 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 dont collect. Its 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 Guggenheims 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
BH Not as smart as they make him sound. . .
LB Exactly, he wasnt able to answer.
PH Basquiat pisses too in his movie.
SC Yeah, outside Schnabels 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?
New York, New York