Louise Bourgeois, the French-born American artist who gained fame only late in a long career, when her psychologically charged abstract sculptures, drawings and prints had a galvanizing effect on the work of younger artists, particularly women, died Monday in Manhattan, where she lived. She was 98.
The cause was a heart attack, said Wendy Williams, managing director of the Louise Bourgeois Studio.
Bourgeois' sculptures in wood, steel, stone and cast rubber, often organic in form and sexually explicit, emotionally aggressive yet witty, covered many stylistic bases. But from first to last they shared a set of themes centred on the human body and its need for nurture and protection in a frightening world.
Protection often translated into images of shelter or home. A gouged lump of cast bronze, for example, suggested an animal's lair. A table-like wooden structure with thin, stilt-like legs resembled a house ever threatening to topple. Her series of Cells from the early 1990s - installations of old doors, windows, steel fencing and found objects - were meant to be evocations of her childhood, which she claimed as the psychic source of her art.
But it was her images of the body itself, sensual but grotesque, fragmented, often sexually ambiguous, that proved especially memorable. In some cases the body took the abstract form of an upright wooden pole, pierced by a few holes and stuck with nails; in others it appeared as a pair of women's hands realistically carved in marble and lying, palms open, on a massive stone base.
Among her most familiar sculptures was the much-exhibited Nature Study (1984), a headless sphinx with powerful claws and multiple breasts. Perhaps the most provocative was Fillette (1968), a large, detached latex phallus. Bourgeois can be seen carrying this object, nonchalantly tucked under one arm, in a portrait by the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe taken for the catalogue of her 1982 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (In the catalogue, the Mapplethorpe picture is cropped to show only the artist's smiling face.)
That retrospective brought Bourgeois, in her early seventies, the critical and popular acclaim that had long eluded her. In 1993, she represented the United States in the Venice Biennale. In an art world where women had been treated as second-class citizens and were discouraged from dealing with overtly sexual subject matter, she quickly assumed an emblematic presence. Her work was read by many as an assertive feminist statement, her career as an example of perseverance in the face of neglect.
Bourgeois often spoke of pain as the subject of her art, and fear: fear of the grip of the past, of the uncertainty of the future, of loss in the present.
"The subject of pain is the business I am in," she said. "To give meaning and shape to frustration and suffering." She added: "The existence of pain cannot be denied. I propose no remedies or excuses."
Yet it was her gift for universalizing her interior life as a complex spectrum of sensations that made her art so affecting.
Louise Bourgeois was born on Dec. 25, 1911, on the Left Bank of Paris, the second of three children born to Louis and Josephine Bourgeois. Her parents, financially comfortable, owned a gallery that dealt primarily in antique tapestries. A few years after her birth, the family moved out of Paris and set up a workshop for tapestry restoration in Choisy-le-Roi. Bourgeois remembered as a child drawing fragments of missing images to help in the repairs.
She often spoke of her early, emotionally conflicted family life as formative. Her practical and affectionate mother, who was an invalid, was a positive influence. Her father's domineering disposition, as well as his marital infidelities (he had a 10-year affair with the children's English governess), instilled a resentment and an insecurity that Bourgeois never laid to rest.