May 23, 2011

Louise Bourgeois: Fabric into Art

Untitled, 2005, fabric, 16 1/4 x 21 1/4 inches.

One of the most beautiful, lyrical, and surprising shows I've seen recently is Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works at Cheim & Read Gallery, up until June 25th. Towards the end of her life, Bourgeois focused on these intimate pieces, using cloth from her closets, so they are worn and personal and a part of her life. She cut and sewed pieces of ordinary fabric into complex patterns...

Untitled, 2005, fabric, 18 1/8 x 14 1/8 inches.

or large simple shapes, bringing to my mind abstract painting of a minimalist sensibility, or even Blinky Palermo's large fabric paintings. As I was looking at the work, and feeling so touched by it, I tried to understand what made the use of fabric so different from paint. For me it is the vulnerability of fabric, its fragility that lends a special poignancy to the work. Paint is so robust in comparison. And even though a painting and one of these fabric works are both handmade, there is a metaphor in the careful stitching of piece to piece not present in paint on a surface.

Eugenie Grandet, 2009, mixed media on cloth, 2 of a suite of 16, 11 1/4 x 8 1/2 inches each.

In the small room near the gallery's entrance a suite of inventive fabric pieces represent the Balzac novel Eugenie Grandet. On what looks to me like a linen ground are artificial flowers, buttons, hooks, carefully assembled on the surface, alluding to accumulation and loss.

The Waiting Hours, 2007, fabric, suite of 12, 15 1/8 x 12 1/4 inches each.

from The Waiting Hours

The Waiting Hours shows a landscape of sea and sky gradually changing, moving from calm to turbulent, day to night. In the first piece of the suite, above, I love the varied types of cloth––flat, shiny, textured––that add richness to the simple structure.

Dawn, 2006, 3 of 12 pages of a fabric book, 12 1/4 x 9 3/4 inches each.

These are three images from a book, whose theme is circles: mostly concentric, but also receding and random. Bourgeois is so clever in her use of pattern either found or sewn.

Untitled, 2005, fabric, 20 1/2 x 27 inches.

detail of Untitled, 2005

I love the stripes of different colors and materials against the pink rectangle made of a silky looking fabric with subtle vertical striations. The bold stripes next to it are of a worn jersey fabric, soft next to the crisp silk. In the photo you can also see reflections, of me and of the works hanging across the room. I decided to use my own photos for this post rather than the gallery images (all the works can be seen at the link above) because they feel more present, more visceral to me.

Untitled, 2006, fabric and fabric collage, 11 x 18 1/4 x 2 inches.

detail of Untitled, 2006

I especially love this piece in which the quiet of an Asian-looking circle is paired with a bulbous accumulation of soft transparent forms: the body with the mind, or messy rich confusion with perfect clarity. As a painter who also works with textiles, I found this show inspiring, prodding me to think about the meaning of materials themselves.


  1. Glad you posted about this. Michele and I saw this show last week and really loved it. So good.

    I had occasion to see the Bourgeois documentary again the other day ("The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine"). So in couple of ways I've been reminded again how amazing she was.

  2. I'll look out for that documentary, ken, and thanks for the comment.

  3. I also was struck by the difference between paint and fabric - the suggestive warmth of fabric and stitchery - to say nothing of the intimacy of using your own clothing...

  4. I agree rappel, about that warmth, and the very personal aspect that comes from using your own old clothes and linens.

  5. Altoon--thank you so much for writing about this show and introducing me to Bourgeois' fabric pieces. I had no idea she'd done these and they were just what I needed to see today. I've been struggling with the line between the traditional means of quilting fabric and my own idiosyncratic methods--trying to discern when to break free and when to hold steady. Seeing Louise's work has helped me immensely and I am enjoying the contrasts of fabric: jersey against silk, flat next to glossy. Interesting how at the end of her life, she returned to her origins: the creation of fabric pieces.

  6. Excellent post and photos! I didn't know that these were "used" textiles and that makes the work all the better. This is beautiful work, so clear and thoughtful.

  7. Thank you for this post, Altoon. This pieces show the power of re-imagining the familiar. Turning what for most would be discards into works that are beautiful, smart, and poetic.

  8. I'm so pleased that you all enjoyed Bourgeois' fabric work, and found them as wonderful as I did.

  9. I don't think I knew she did fabric. Really wonderful, creative, sensual, contemporary, intimate and touching work. The stripes and circles have such a different quality than if they had been painted, and the age of the fabric also affects the pieces as well. Love the hooks and eyes just pinned on to the fabric. And also really enjoyed the idea of there being suites of work. These images will definitely linger with me.

  10. WOW!
    thank you for these images!
    i have no art-insightful responses but your own words help me to see these pieces.

  11. So glad you posted this. thanks

  12. Thankyou, what a great story,,I didnt know she went into this intimate style from her own wardrobe!,,and because of her parents background I expect it was a link to them, and a reconciling to an extent? How wonderful she was, and I had the very great privilige of spending a day with her in her apartment in Greenwich village in 1997, and we had a great day filled with laughter and conversation on our interests. Thankyou Louise and thankyou for posting this article. Carolyn

  13. Carolyn, Bourgeois' interest in fabric definitely came from her family background. How wonderful for you that you had a chance to meet her and enjoy her company.