Untouched since the day she died, Louise Bourgeois’ New York home-cum-studio offers an intimate portrait of the artist
By Lucy Davies
8:00AM BST 15 Jun 2014
At 13ft wide, the townhouse in New York that was both home and studio to Louise Bourgeois is almost as tiny as the artist herself. It was here, on the site of an old apple orchard, half a mile from the shore of the Hudson river and Chelsea’s elevated railway, that Bourgeois moved back in 1962 when she was 51 years old. It was here too that she died almost half a century later at the age of 98.
The transition from domestic to work-space was engineered with maximum efficiency. When her husband died in 1973, she got rid of the dining table, then the stove, and turned their bedroom into a library for her self-help and psychology books.
Little by little this elfin woman with her ballerina bun colonised the house like one of the spiders she became famous for sculpting. Cocooning herself into the spaces within its walls, she hollowed out arches and knocked through walls, burrowed through floorboards and installed spiralling stairwells to open up cavities below. No space was wasted in pursuit of her art, and nothing has been tidied away since the day she died. Kitchen cupboards are stacked full of tins, Coty foundation and her hairbrush still twined with hair sit on the mantelpiece, next to a book titled ‘Taxes for Dummies.’
On the day that I visit, the street outside is glossy with rain, but the spring downpour has brought with it a flock of birds, chirruping happily and noisily in the trees. Opposite sits a beautiful church, its bell chiming the hour.
“Louise loved to sit by the window, drawing and writing, watching the street,” says her long-time assistant and friend Jerry Gorovoy, who is guiding my visit. A show dedicated to her tapestry works is shortly to open at Hauser & Wirthin Zurich, and though, as he tells me, he doesn’t often curate her work, this time he took the reins with pleasure. “I like projects with a small focus where you can bring something new to people,” he says. The show includes a number of her heads, as well as spiders and cushion towers. Much of it has never been seen before. Meanwhile, from tomorrow, an exhibition of her works on paper opens at Tate Modern in London.
Spider (2003) by Louise Bourgeois (THE EASTON FOUNDATION)
Gorovoy, now 60, met Louise in 1980 when he was curating at a small SoHo gallery. She didn’t like the way he had installed her work and barrelled through the door, ranting and raving until the two eventually resolved their differences over coffee. Not long afterward she invited him to the home that we are standing in now, where he realised instantly, as he wrote movingly in the days following her death, “that the way she spoke, lived and worked were all of a piece, inextricably linked together.”
At the time of their meeting, Bourgeois had yet to achieve the incredible success that characterised the later decades of her life. Her first big show at MOMA was still two years in the future, and though she had been working on paintings, drawings and sculptures since the day she arrived in the city as a young bride in 1938, her name was still only known in dedicated circles. “She was already 70,” says Gorovoy, “yet things were just beginning.”
Bourgeois was born in Paris on Christmas Day 1911. Her parents, Josephine and Louis, ran a tapestry gallery on the Boulevard Saint Germain du Pres where they sold antique Aubusson and Gobelin pieces that Josephine also repaired. When war broke out, Louis was first wounded then returned to the front. Josephine was distraught, hauling her children across the country after him, infecting Louise with an anxiety from which she never wholly recovered.
Bourgeois outside her parents' gallery in Paris, 1929 (THE EASTON FOUNDATION)
In 1919 they set up an atelier restoring tapestries in the Paris suburbs. Josephine’s family came from Aubusson, and so the delicate needlework required flowed in her blood. She kept the carpets she was working on shelves, stacked upright like books. Louise later told Gorovoy how much she enjoyed being in the atelier because the women would talk endlessly about their boyfriends. It was here she learned to draw, mostly hands and feet, which were typically at the edges of the tapestry and so the most damaged.
Much of their market consisted of wealthy but prudish Americans, who demanded any image of genitalia be removed. To accommodate them, Josephine would cut out the offending area and replace it with a panel embroidered with flowers, but she kept the rejected pieces and strung them up on a thread in her workshop.
Louise’s mother contracted influenza during the pandemic, and was frequently unwell afterwards. At the time Louis was engaged in a long-term affair with Louise’s governess, so the young teen was forced to act as nurse and comfort until Josephine died in 1932. “It was the big trauma of her life” says Gorovoy. The rage she felt for her father never left her, and became key to her early art.
She interrupted her degree in mathematics at the Sorbonne to study art with Fernand Léger, then set up a little shop in the backroom of her parent’s Parisian tapestry gallery to support herself, selling prints by Bonnard and Picasso. It was here she met her husband, the art critic Robert Goldwater, with whom she moved to New York after their marriage in 1938. “He died before I met her, “says Gorovoy, “but by all accounts he was really in love with her, a quiet man. Thought she was amazing.”
Bourgeois was desperate for a family of her own and when children didn’t arrive, they adopted a little boy from France. As sometimes happens, hortly afterwards she became pregnant, and within three years the couple had three children to look after. She carved out a studio space on the roof of their building, where she would gaze out at the skyline. “I love this city” she wrote in a notebook in 1947, “its clean cut look, its sky, its buildings, its scientific, cruel, romantic quality.”
But dividing her time between a conventional and a bohemian lifestyle was hard on both her and the children, especially after her father’s death in 1951 when she fell into a deep depression. “She didn’t feel that she was the greatest mother” says Gorovoy. “She said: ‘I realise I had to make this art, that maybe it was more important than the children.’ It was not a happy household - in her diaries, you really see her beginning to unravel.”
Her mother’s habit of saving and re-using things came to characterise much of Louise’s life. Even now, plastic boxes of clothes and fabric, some more than a hundred years old, are stacked floor to ceiling in the basement of her townhouse. There are cupboards full of vases, stacks of biscuit tins, old radios, and shelf upon shelf of dictionaries, encyclopaedias and the journals Louise filled religiously, sometimes three times a day.
The fireplace in Bourgeois' front sitting room. The telephone numbers on the wall are in her own hand (NICHOLAS CALCOTT)
All of this material now belongs to the Easton Foundation, administered by Gorovoy and Louise’s children. The house is in the process of being joined to its neighbour, acquired in 2009 for $4.5 million dollars from a theatre designer, whose penchant for exuberant chandeliers and mirrors is still in evidence. Together the houses will form a centre for scholars – some will even be invited to stay in its upper rooms – with an intimate sculpture garden at the back. It is due to open to the public next year. Today the space is still full of hard hats and blueprints, the air buzzing with the sound of hammer and saw, but it’s not hard to see what an amazing, labyrinthine thing it will become, fully in tune with Louise’s original architectural "interventions", as Gorovoy terms them fondly.
Of course, artists’ lives are traced by the marks they leave behind, and the building is no different to a canvas or sheet of paper in this respect. Her handwriting is everywhere. Boxes labelled with their contents – ‘Chess’ reads one – and telephone numbers all over the wall. As we climb the wooden stairs, each concave from fifty years of tread, light pours from an oval skylight. When repairs were done to the roof, Louise requested the ceiling be painted a periwinkle blue, still pristine amongst the otherwise weathered walls, and peeling, curlicue plaster.
One of the most revealing spaces is the rear sitting room, where, opposite shelves stuffed with videos and yet more books is a wall to wall pin board. There are photographs of her children, of herself with Bono, Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin (all three came to pay homage, but Emin and Bourgeois worked together on a series of paintings in 2009 and 2010) and of her family home in Paris. There are certificates, newspaper clippings –‘Does feminism conflict with artistic standards?’ reads one – and exhibition posters.
In front lie tins brim-full of inks, pastels and pencils, one of which Gorovoy borrows when someone rings with a query about his exhibition. He’s clearly at home here, and refreshingly, doesn’t treat the place as a museum. The photographer, busy in the kitchen, has been given carte blanche to snap at will, open cupboards, peer into piles of fabric. When I ask if it’s OK to sit on the chaise longue, Gorovoy laughs and gestures, "Of course" before handing me a sheaf of old photographs still in the mish-mash heap they must have been left in some twenty years ago. I have to blow the dust off before I can look at them.
The rear sitting room (NICHOLAS CALCOTT)
His laid back, kindly attitude must have been a blessing for Bourgeois, who suffered from an often paralysing anxiety as well as bouts of insomnia. “She would stay up for three days in a row, hyper,” says Gorovoy. “We tried different sleeping pills, nothing worked. My days would start at ten, and sometimes she’d been sitting there since six waiting for me. ‘You’re late’ she’d say, in the black skirt and shirt she wore every day. She was like a car idling too quick. It was torture, really torture.
Her day began with “all this tea and all this jelly [jam] and with the sugar and caffeine she’d be raring to go. In the afternoon she’d just draw, other times we’d got to a movie or an opening, or come home and watch a DVD...she liked comedies, sometimes French films. She would cook, everything from oxtail to pasta to omelettes, lamb chops. A whole meal from a tiny hot plate.”
It was in the sitting room that Bourgeois held her famous Sunday salons, for which people would queue around the block. Everyone had to present something – a piece of music, a poem, a painting. It was Gorovoy’s job to get people drunk. “She had a little bar – whisky, ouzo. Sometimes people would bring wine. It was like group therapy. She’d want to know everything– did their father hit them, what was their mother like. We were both interested in psychology. When we argued she would try to say something psychoanalytical and I would just lob it right back.”
It’s hard to imagine this elegant, gentle man with his candy-striped spectacles and voluminous beard in a slanging match but, he says, “We had our moments…. She had her seamstress and a welder for the metal work, but no one else. It was just me and her.”
Louise, he says, “had a lifelong fear of abandonment; it’s why she never threw anything out…She would say, ‘what am I going to do with all this stuff? It means so much to me; so many memories.’ She never talked about death, but I think she knew that by turning these objects, everything in this decrepit splendour around us into artworks, it stood a chance of surviving. Otherwise what would be the fate of that stuff? Really, nothing.”
It must be strange, I say, for you to come back to this house when she isn’t here? “It was,” he says, “it became easier. Once I was here alone and I heard her voice. That was really disconcerting.” Is there an object that reminds him of her most? He thinks for a moment. “It’s the whole house, a life. But when I see her, she’s always sitting in the back room with the window open, listening to the children in the schoolyard behind. She was like a child, in the end. An arrested child.”