Skip to main content

Louise Bourgeois is seen in her studio circa 1946.

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.

Her nightmarish tableau of 1974, The Destruction of the Father, for example, is a table in a stagily lighted recess, which holds an arrangement of breast-like bumps, phallic protuberances and other biomorphic shapes in soft-looking latex that suggest the sacrificial evisceration of a body, the whole surrounded by big, crude mammillary forms. Bourgeois has suggested as the tableau's inspiration a fantasy from childhood in which a pompous father, whose presence deadens the dinner hour night after night, is pulled onto the table by other family members, dismembered and gobbled up.

Similarly, for a 1994 exhibition titled Louise Bourgeois: Locus of Memory, Works 1982-1993, she created a single sculpture and suite of drawings in which the central image was a spider, a creature she associated with her mother, a woman of ever-changing moods.

Drawn in orange and flesh-pink gouache, it here stalked across the page and there shrunk to the size of a pea. As an immense sculpture of soldered metal tubing, it loomed ominously over the viewer but was delicate enough to quiver and sway at a touch. Fragility and fierceness were, in fact, the twin poles of Bourgeois' art.

Often there was a precise association in her work. After she had created a number of vertical spirals that seemed to twist in space, she evoked childhood memories of the tapestry business and her family: "When a tapestry had to be washed in the river, it took four people to hoist it out and twist it. Twisting is very important for me. When I dreamt of getting rid of the mistress, it was by twisting her neck."

At the age of 20, she entered the Sorbonne to study mathematics and geometry, disciplines that she valued for their stability. "I got peace of mind," she later said, "only through the study of rules nobody could change." But she left to enroll in a succession of art schools, and counted Fernand Léger among her teachers.

In 1938 she married Robert Goldwater, an American art historian noted for his pioneering work in the field then referred to as primitive art. They moved to New York City that same year, and Bourgeois attended the Art Students League, where she studied painting with Vaclav Vytlacil and also produced sculpture and prints.

She knew many of the European Surrealists then arriving as refugees in New York (she later dismissed them as "smart alecks"), but the artists to whom she felt closest were the American painters who would come to be known as Abstract Expressionists.

Bourgeois had a solo show of paintings in New York in 1945 and her first exhibition of sculpture - an installation of tall, pole-like figures that she intended as abstract portraits of family members and friends - four years later at the Peridot Gallery, at which time she gave up painting for good.

She enjoyed some professional success as a sculptor thereafter (she participated in the Whitney Museum of American Art's Annual Exhibition almost yearly until 1962). But a significant shift in her career came in 1966, when she was included in an exhibition at the Fischbach Gallery in New York, Eccentric Abstraction, organized by the critic Lucy Lippard.

Bourgeois' long involvement in the nascent feminist movement, about which she had passionate but ambivalent feelings, began at this time. In the following year she made her first of many trips to the marble works in Carrara and Pietrasanta, Italy, where she produced dozens of major marble pieces over several years.

After her husband's death in 1973, she began teaching at the School of Visual Arts and elsewhere, including Columbia University, Cooper Union, New York Studio School and Yale University, which awarded her an honorary doctor of fine arts degree in 1977. She also received an honorary doctorate from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1993.

By the mid-1970s, with shifts in art-world trends, her reputation was steadily growing. Although she had been given only four one-woman shows in 30 years after her debut as a sculptor in 1949, from 1978 to 1981 she had five in New York alone. Her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art the following year, the first retrospective of a woman at the museum, secured her place as an influential figure. Her reputation grew even stronger in the context of the body-centred art of the 1990s, with its emphasis on sexuality, vulnerability and mortality.

Her first European retrospective was organized by the Kunstverein in Frankfurtin 1989. An international retrospective was organized by the Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2007 and travelled to New York, Los Angeles and Washington the following year. The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte/Reina Sofia in Madrid and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg mounted retrospectives.

She also was included in four Whitney Biennials, the first in 1973 and the most recent in 1997, and a number of major international shows, including Documenta and the Carnegie International.

A survey of her prints was organized by the Modern in 1994, and a survey of her drawings by the University Art Museum at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1995. At her death, two films about her had been completed. She was represented by Cheim & Read Gallery in Chelsea.

Bourgeois was named Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French minister of culture in 1983. Other honours included the Grand Prix National de Sculpture from the French government in 1991; the National Medal of Arts, presented to her by president Bill Clinton in 1997; the first lifetime achievement award from the International Sculpture Center in Washington and election as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Bourgeois is survived by two sons, Jean-Louis of Manhattan, and Alain of Brooklyn; two grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. Her son Michel died in 1990.

A lifelong insomniac, she often stayed up drawing or writing in her journal, in the same plain, epigrammatic style in which she spoke. (Her writings and interviews were published under the title Destruction of the Father/Reconstruction of the Father by the MIT Press in 1998.

"I have a religious temperament," Bourgeois, a professed atheist, said about the emotional and spiritual energy that she poured into her work. "I have not been educated to use it. I'm afraid of power. It makes me nervous. In real life, I identify with the victim. That's why I went into art."

New York Times News Service

Interact with The Globe