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April 23, 2006

'I am interested in what I do. Not what I am.' — Louise Bourgeois


The 94-year-old artist (above) for many years has held a Sunday afternoon salon for artists at her Chelsea [New York City] brownstone, where she's lived for over half a century.

Anthony Haden-Guest of the Financial Times hosted the event two weeks ago, on April 9.

His account, which appears in this weekend's FT, follows.

    Sunday afternoon at the feet of a Big Artist

    New York is one of the oldest modernist capitals, in the sense of being a home to modernism as a dominant cultural force.

    As such it is perhaps second only to Paris, and far, far older than London, which is the new brat on the block.

    So unsurprisingly, New York is also home to modernist institutions, one of these being the Louise Bourgeois salon.

    Bourgeois, who was born in Paris and moved to New York in 1938, makes sensual, sometimes viscerally disturbing sculpture (below).


    She had a retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1982 when she was 71.

    She represented the US at the 1993 Venice Biennale.

    In 2000 the Tate Modern installed her 35ft spider in the new Turbine Hall.

    So Louise Bourgeois is a Big Artist but one who comes out of a smaller art world, a far more supportive one, and she began her salon as a simple artists' get-together.

    It remains in the Chelsea brownstone in which she has lived for over half a century and brought up a family but it became more structured ten years ago, with attendees expected to bring work for Bourgeois to critique.

    I made my third visit the Sunday before last (bringing some cartoon drawings).

    A Bourgeois flower painting from the 1940s hung by the door. Documents - a Jazz Age-period Vanity Fair cover, a likeness of the Dadaist Hugo Ball - were pinned to the walls.

    Pouran Esrafily, a lithe Iranian woman, was using a movie camera as she has been doing every Sunday but two for the last decade.

    It was three in the afternoon.


    There were five artists present and others trickled in.

    Sometimes an older artist shows up.

    Anthony Gormley has been there, as have Richard Long, Nan Goldin, Shirin Neshat and Lucio Pozzi, who had just appeared in this column about the Fluxus movement and was required to read it aloud.

    But this Sunday it was younger artists, clutching portfolios and rolled up canvases, apart from a cadaverous man, toting a briefcase.

    "What do you do?" I asked him.

    Esrafily had appointed me moderator.

    I was supposed to ask such questions.

    He replied in French.

    "Art secret," he said.


    Or I thought he said.

    "Secret art?" I asked.

    Maybe so secret there was nothing there? The Dadaists would have liked that.

    "Art sacré" he corrected, politely.

    Sacred art. Stained glass?

    Suddenly Louise Bourgeois was among us.

    She seated herself.

    Her hair was swept back from a strong face.

    The artists approached, one bringing a box of chocolates, another crystallised tangerine slices.


    Among the data supplied by the Venice Biennale had been the odd snippet that "her father would draw Louise Bourgeois' outline on the skin of a tangerine and cut it in the shape of a naked girl".

    Neither the artist nor Bourgeois seemed to have this in mind.

    She nibbled a slice and examined the company through bright, slitted eyes.

    First up was an Italian woman with short, dark-blonde hair.

    She spread colour photos across the table, negotiating the tangerine slice, and showed photo books.

    She appeared in most images herself, sometimes twice or even three times.

    They were based on dreams. How many people in the group took notes of their dreams? I asked, moderator-fashion.

    Two raised their hands (OK - I was one).

    "I never dream," Louise Bourgeois said firmly. She still has a near impenetrable Gallic accent 68 years after arriving in New York.


    Perhaps you sleep so well that you don't remember your dreams, I suggested.

    "How do you know I sleep?" she asked, unanswerably.

    The photographs were handed around the other group while the artist spread out paper sheets covered with minute line drawings of herself, replicated by computer.

    "You are very interested in yourself," Bourgeois observed.

    "And you are not?" the artist asked.

    "I am interested in what I do. Not in what I am," Bourgeois said.

    The final artist showed a big canvas.

    "Very good! Very, very good," Bourgeois said.


    She was singing a French love song as we left.

April 23, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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