Louise Bourgeois, the grande dame of contemporary artists best known for her sculpture and disquieting symbolism, died Monday of a heart attack at a hospital in Manhattan. She was 98.
Sculpture became Ms. Bourgeois’ primary medium after 1945 when the Peridot Gallery, a prestigious venue in Manhattan’s then-intimate art world, staged her first solo sculpture show. In 1982, Ms. Bourgeois became the first female artist to be honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Subsequent retrospectives in 1993 and 2007 that visited major institutions in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Madrid, London, Paris and St. Petersburg, Russia, consolidated her position as a world figure in art.
Her work, which is on view at Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco through June 12, came to the attention to the Bay Area public in 2007 when the San Francisco Arts Commission installed her giant bronze “Crouching Spider” (2003) at Pier 14 on the Embarcadero. It stayed until early 2009. In 1996, the Berkeley Art Museum presented a career survey of Ms. Bourgeois’ drawings.
Ms. Bourgeois acknowledged that the spider imagery in her art was a Freudian symbol of female sexuality, a private symbol of her mother and a celebration of arachnids’ crucial predator role in keeping the Earth’s insect population in check.
She frequently said her work sprang from conscious and unconscious memories of her childhood, with a caring but invalid mother and an imperious, unfaithful father.
In the mid-’60s, a rising generation of feminist artists and critics rediscovered her art, and although she was never entirely comfortable with that affiliation, it accelerated a career that previously had been in low gear.
Born in Paris on Dec. 25, 1911, Ms. Bourgeois worked early on for her parents, who marketed and restored antique tapestries. Some of her art’s spider imagery also evokes her youthful part in repairing threadbare textiles.
Although Ms. Bourgeois drew frequently to assist in the family business, she studied mathematics when she entered the Sorbonne, in search, she said, of impersonal, unbreakable rules.
She soon digressed into art studies at various schools in Paris and a stint as studio assistant to Fernand Leger (1881-1955), one of France’s most esteemed painters at the time.
In 1938, Ms. Bourgeois married American art historian Robert Goldwater (1907-1973), a specialist in tribal arts who wrote extensively about their influence on European modernism.
Once settled in New York, where she continued her studies at the Art Students League, Ms. Bourgeois entered the widening circle of European artists who sought refuge there from the war, including several Surrealists, whose influence she would later deny, though critics continue to make that connection.
In 1993 Ms. Bourgeois represented the United States at the Venice Biennale and London’s Tate Modern commissioned for its 2000 opening a suite of works from her for its mammoth Turbine Hall.
Ms. Bourgeois received several honorary doctorates, and, in 1997, the National Medal of Arts. France named her an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters and conferred its Grand Prix National de Sculpture in 1991.
She is survived by sons Jean-Louis and Alain, both of New York City, two grandchildren and one great grandchild. A third son, Michel, died a decade ago.
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