Dec 14 2016

On Intimate Geometries: The Art and Life of Louise Bourgeois by Robert Storr

Christopher Lyon, Linda Norden, Martha Schwendener, Léa Vuong, and Robert Storr

Christopher Lyon: First I'd like to say something about the book we're here to discuss. This 828-page tome on the art and life of Louise Bourgeois, who was born in 1911 and died in 2010, is the product of some thirty years of work on Robert Storr's part. It comprehensively surveys Bourgeois's career as an artist, which spanned nearly seventy-five years, with more than nine hundred illustrations. Chapters relating Bourgeois's life and analyzing her creative achievement alternate with portfolios, in chronological sequence, that show the unfolding of her oeuvre. The final chapter is a coda that details Rob's close and complicated relationship with his subject, beginning in the early 1980s. It is, and probably will remain, the definitive monograph on Louise.

Robert Storr: I don't think there's such a thing as a definitive book, that's part of my point. It will be the first essai at making a comprehensive book. I should just say in parentheses that the fact it exists at all is very much to the credit of Chris, who has stayed with this project long past the patience of most mere mortals. In terms of design, production, the whole thing.

CL: Thank you for saying that. I thought it would be good if we could pull everybody into the conversation at the beginning. You're all familiar with Louise's work and I wondered to what extent this book confirmed, challenged, or surprised you.

Martha Schwendener: It filled in a lot of blanks, and at the same time, made me realize why there are blanks in Bourgeois's career, such as, you know, that span of time in the '50s[1]. One of my academic advisors was Anna Chaveand she taught a class called "Careers in Sculpture," and the whole point was, particularly with women, the way you can have this kind of start-stop career. Now I don't really see Bourgeois so much as a late-bloomer. I mean I really love the work in the '40s and the '50s in particular. But, at the end, there's a lot of work that I love from the '90s and even from the 2000s, like some of the fabric work. It really, more than changed my overall impression, started filling things in. I remember seeing one of these fabric works out at the Parrish Art Museum, in Water Mill, Long Island, and being blown away. And then being able to see four or five of them together in the book was great.

Linda Norden: For me, Rob's most welcome contribution was the way he managed to open up what, from the 1982 Museum of Modern Art, New York, retrospective on, had become an almost overbearing narrative, by leading with the art. Rob's monograph hinges on the assertion of both Bourgeois' hypersensitivity, from childhood on, to the psychic impact of her intimate relationships and surrounds, and to the speed with which this sensitivity was manifested in a personal vocabulary of psychically charged forms and images. The book is driven by his close tracking of the chronology of Bourgeois's early amalgams of potent form ideas, geometric, surreal, and literary from the get-go: insects, hair, house and home, naked and protective, angry, yet ever-childlike in their vulnerability—and their recursiveness as the images reappear in her work. His attention to his own relationship to Bourgeois—explicitly in the last chapter, but also throughout the book—emphasizes the idea of Bourgeois's art as the product of a series of intense relationships and offered me a new perspective on the way she took charge, as she did, in both the making and the narration of her art and persona.

Léa Vuong: I agree with the two points that you've both raised. What's really important about this book—putting aside the fact that it's comprehensive—is that it illuminates some moments in Bourgeois's careers that have remained obscure. Especially this period of the 1950s that you take time to explain, and propose a way of seeing and defining this period that is essential and new. The other aspect is the way that you identify the difficulty that the overbearing narrative poses for those who want to study Louise Bourgeois's work. I think what I found inspiring is the way that the book is exhaustive but also brings constant critical distance to this narrative. You explain and situate the story in a historical context but at the same time offer ways to step back from it.

It takes into account the subjective approach that you have to Bourgeois's work. I also picked up on the parts where Louise's relationships and conflicts with other artists are discussed. I think the comparison between her work and Louise Nevelson's is important for the scholarship on Bourgeois because it's something that hasn't been properly tackled in the way it is here. There were some little things that I hadn't realized before reading the book: the fact that Bourgeois was so close to the English language and that she, even before moving to the US, used English professionally as a guide at the Louvre. Or, how, early on, she turned to art.

CL: Rob, there are a few things here. The notion of giving a fuller picture, filling in the blanks, and the narrative tropes and the way you deal with them. Then, your personal relationship to Louise has been mentioned, and also the determination to keep a certain critical distance from the myth, the narrative. I wonder if you could speak to some of that.

RS: Well, let me start with the last first. I admired Louise's work and I loved Louise, but I admired her work more than I loved her. Indeed, sometimes when it was impossible to love her, I could always love her work. At the same time, loving someone's work is not the same thing as being uncritical about it—quite the contrary. I really wanted to do right by her in tackling some of the stuff that other people haven't notice or have skirted. Such as her influences, or her way of simultaneously embellishing things physically and narratively. I didn't want to write a hagiography. Skeptics might be suspicious of the size of the book and think it has been inflated, but it is so heavy that it can't be called a "puff piece." The benefit of knowing her as well as I did—and I knew her very, very well for ten years, pretty well for twenty, and less so for the last ten, when she was less available altogether—was the fact that her work is psychological, not in the sense of any particular psychoanalytic scenario, but it is motivated by the really complicated circuitry of her psyche. And knowing how she thinks helps to understand situations where there isn't a written record saying what she thought.

MS: And I think also, as Léa's already mentioned, the linguistic. Bourgeois had a kind of linguistic insight, as you said. Because Rob speaks French, he was one of the few people around her who would be aware of this. She would be just throwing things out that people based in New York who weren't as familiar with French or, maybe, with her joining of French and English as a kind of intra-language, or something, would not grasp, and that's really interesting because language filters through her work all the time.

LN: It does. And wordplay, or, not even wordplay—it seems like associative chains of thinking.

RS: There's a French verb she used a lot, enchaîner, and that is exactly the way her associative mind worked, by linking one thing to the next.

MS: And that's where the Duchampian part comes in too, with these titles that are just whoosh—you know, like, zingers. Because we always want to compare her. The comparison of Louise Nevelson's Moon Spikes, 1953, and Louise Bourgeois's The Blind Leading the Blind, 1947-1949, was one of the most significant in the book, where you've got two images next to each other and you see that each artist had made the same sculpture—one is just upside down. That's a book in itself!

RS: I worked very hard on the sequencing and clustering in the portfolios, and Chris and I worked to set them up so that people could look at the pages of reproductions and get the point without needing the text as a caption.

MS: There's a real rhythm to it.

LN: There's a rhythm and it also throws into relief the language in an interesting way because you can see things that seem to be worked out formally or haptically, almost, especially once she moves into sculpture, where forms get felt out, or fought out, as opposed to amplified or embellished by the narrative.

RS: Those portfolios are like sequences of a slide talk where you're not trying to prove a point, you're trying to open up and show a set of connections.

LN: The opposite of fixing it.

MS: And seduce, that's what I always say about PowerPoint: Why did we get into this? Because we like visual things!

LN: Yeah, but I always chafe at the notion that the visual is more manipulative than the verbal.

RS: We're always manipulative.

CL: Rob, this is a chance to give a sense of the journey you went on from the beginning of this project to the endpoint, what your expectations or anticipations were at the beginning and how they got redirected en route.

RS: The model that I had in mind was Lucy Lippard's 1976 book on Eva Hesse. I was very impressed by that book when I read it—and I've read it many times—and I thought, "OK if I can do something of the kind for Louise, that's the way to go." And then I naively got started, in the mid-'80s. It was a little bit like: Let's put on a show! But again, Louise and I were very easy-going, she clearly wanted something like this and I was writing at that time for Art in America, I had no big projects, I had no big career, I had nothing. I just had time. So, I got started on that basis.

LN: Did you feel that there was a story that needed to be told? At the time you started, the story was less familiar.

RS: Well, yes and no. When I got started it was partly because she recruited me to work with Gerry Saldo and Laura Tennen on this slide video shown at MoMA during her retrospective[2] and all of this was just coming out. I loved the woman and the ambience of her world. I knew some of it already but I was more interested in the work than I was in the story. Nevertheless, as she proceeded to say more about her childhood, the story became a real problem insofar as it fixed the "official" parameter for interpreting the work.

CL: Can you talk about that a little bit? How the official version starts to become a problem and an obstacle?

RS: When you go to an exhibition and you hear people saying what the meaning of the piece is almost before they've looked at it, that's a problem. When you hear a generalized statement of Freudian method, or Freudian paradigms, which take no particular account of what's right in front of them physically, visually, and otherwise, that's a problem.

LN: What about the way in which Bourgeois seizes the opportunity to tell her own story? I think that a collective feminism was both a challenge to her largely individual orientation and a political means she grasped. Bourgeois has always struck me as more strategic than political, for reasons that I see as generational. But I do think Rob's narrative conveys insights she gained from a larger feminist perspective, and, more specifically, from her participating in actions against specific museums. And I'm saying that she seemed savvy enough, and I don't mean "strategic" in a strictly pejorative sense, but, you know, controlling. There's a certain way in which the later career does seem far more defined by Bourgeois herself, working with different perspectives and amplifying some narratives vis à vis others. Selectively. I don't know if I'm right.

RS: I would say a number of things. One is I think she really appreciated the fact that people rallied to her, because this was one of the loneliest parts of her life, one of the least certain, aesthetically and otherwise. Two, I think she learned about her work from the people who initially "rediscovered" and championed her. What Lucy wrote about her was really important. I think Lucy's observation about moving the base to the top of the piece is brilliant, right?[3] And it has not gotten nearly enough credit because in terms of Louise's claims to sculptural importance, it's one of the things that make it so.

LN: It's true. Especially because the early work seems much more Brancusi-driven.

RS: The other side is that Louise had an enormous ego that she couldn't let out. The feminist movement gave her some insight into that but it didn't solve the problem for her. In writing about feminism I've tried not to theorize it overmuch. I have heeded Robert Graves's warning that "no man can decently speak in a woman's name." But it's also an essential part of her story that hasn't been examined enough except in the abstract. The missing element concerns what such a large historical phenomenon actually meant to this woman in "autobiographical" terms.

LN: What plays against that so strongly is her insistence on a far earlier male-identified notion of the individual.

RS: Absolutely. I think this was hugely important to her. And the rewards came with it. There's a story in there someplace about when we went to the SoHo branch of the Guggenheim Museum, for her opening and she was trumpeted in by members of Women's Action Coalition (WAC), and I was with her as one of her "Bobby-guards,"[4] and she was loving it, absolutely loving it, as she did when she got her Légion d'Honneur. I think it was at the time when she made the pictorial spread "Child Abuse," for the December 1982 issue of Artforum, and when she recorded the narrative for the MoMA audiotape, that she finally realized the answer to the problem that she posed to me over the dinner table, about not having happen to her what happened to Stuart Davis, what happened to Ad Reinhardt. The answer was, in fact, to become a persona. She had kept herself under wraps, right? But finally she decided, "OK, I'm going to put this into play." And it was even earlier, around the time of the Pat Hamilton show[5], that she had discovered costuming, I mean aggressively. But it was all part of a phasing in of this character called "Louise" that she performed and invented as she performed it.

LN: Right, so it's not just feminist. It's kind of part of a whole larger performing the self.

RS: Judith Butler, but improvised.

LV: One thing that you were saying about persona and this question of how she situated herself within feminist art history, brings to my mind one of her latest exhibitions, which she did in Paris, called Moi, Eugénie Grandet. It was based on Bourgeois's identification with the title character of the novel by Balzac, who is a typical woman whose destiny is completely determined by the men around her. In the end, there's a sort of discreet form of victory, because she survives the men who tried to define her life and also ends up really rich. In that exhibition, Bourgeois borrows this persona, this character, from the novel to tell her own story, but I think it's quite interesting that she does it in the context of Balzac's home. In a way, Balzac has a really interesting history with male artists, like Picasso or de Kooning, who identified with a character invented by Balzac, Master Frenhofer, an epitome of the male genius artist. I think that is a way of thinking about that question: When Louise Bourgeois identifies with Eugénie Grandet, what she does is challenge or propose another model for the artist, which is her own, but implicitly also challenges the previous model of de Kooning or Picasso—the artist as a mad genius. Bourgeois's work is constantly relevant to the history of feminist art, but in a way that is never explicitly or directly expressed, as something that stays specific to her art. I think that question of being a woman artist is always there and is something that she constantly works through.

RS: Yes, when Louise thought, she thought in terms of images and of problematics that she had picked up here and there. Some of them were little texts, little aphorisms and sayings, but literary stuff is really important. She was very well read. Eugénie Grandet was a favorite of hers, Bonjour Tristesse another. Someone should really go through her work and footnote it in relation to literary traditions, because she was a child of her culture and it was a canonical culture of French literature. Rather than going to archetypes outside of literature and outside of French culture, which are valid too, but take you far away. Why not look at the things that are close?

MS: I also want to pick up on the idea of the model—what kind of model of woman artist are we talking about or thinking about? I was struck by what you said about feminism. That really spoke to me. I teach "Art since 1945"; how do I frame it for people who, when I say, "We're going to do some feminism," they reply, "Well, why would we do that? It's all transgender, postgender." But the thing is, you have figures like Hesse, like Ana Mendieta, that became these feminist martyrs, and then it just gets subsumed under: "Here's Feminism!" And the work and the whole thing gets lost. And this is one of those situations where I think you're exactly right, this idea of feminist ghettoizing.

LN: Lippard's biography of Hesse was one of the first to counter a mythology that had already sprung full form in the few years between the artist's death and the time that Lippard wrote. One of the wonderful things about that book, and I appreciated it as a model, is how Lippard countered the grounds for martyring. I mean, Mendieta and Hesse are so radically different in terms of the way their careers unfolded or what they stressed in their own work.

RS: To double back to the feminist issue and particularly to Linda Nochlin's 1971 essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" The tendency in writing about Louise has been to look for a male impediment in the real world—gallerist, husband, whatever it is, that got in her way. But the male impediment was the internalized patriarchal system. And the ways in which she lived it and the ways in which she had to gradually chip away at it. That's the devil in this workshop.

LN: Exactly. The internalized resistant, or damning, or doubting, male.

RS: It's the superego, in the patriarchy.

MS: I think that's where the '50s section is very rich in terms of where she was included, wasn't included. I didn't know that she'd signed on with the Irascibles because again, speaking of images, what do most of us see? An image with one woman in it.

CL: One of the things I wanted to ask all of you about is the philosophical underpinnings of the book, specifically the work of Gaston Bachelard. When I talked yesterday to Marie-Laure Bernadac, she underlined three times how important she felt Bachelard was for Louise and how long Louise had been reading him.

RS: About which Bourgeois lied to me actually. I gave Louise Bachelard's La Terre et les rêveries de la volonté—there are two volumes about soft and hard, that José Cortihas kept in print for decades—and she read them and underlined them and acted as if she had not read them before, but apparently she had. Marie-Laure and I talk to each other—a lot of credit goes to her for having brought Louise into museum culture in Paris—and Marie-Laure found notes, early notes in the archives, about her having read Bachelard. Now it's entirely possible that she conveniently forgot her influence as a function of creative misprision, à la Harold Bloom. The point is that my reason for using it is to say again that the material language of her work is where we should be looking most of all, rather than for some other structure outside of it that will explain it all. Because I don't think it can be explained altogether by any factor—including Bachelard. The reason we are interested in her is because she is an artist! She's an artist who used materials in certain ways and knew their connotations, both implicit and explicit, and did things to mess them up. For example, she often talked about resistance. And that's why she moved from graphic, or painting anyway, to sculpture, for the resistance. That is explicit in Bachelard. And although she more or less lied to me about whether she had read Bachelard, he was bang-on.

LN: Artists don't have to acknowledge their sources!

RS: Right. The point is I think that was what she was looking for: resistance. And I think she found two kinds: the unmanageable soft thing and the hard obdurate thing. And I think that is really what kept her working on a given night of panic. Or day.

MS: If we can move sideways on Bachelard, he's seen as one of the early people in this incredible French tradition of thinking about space, and one of the things I really was struck with in her work is how architectural it is. The Femme Maison and then later, in the '90s, all these cells and everything, and I just hadn't thought of her as so architectural…

LV: I think Rob's title, Intimate Geometries, really captures that idea you were just mentioning, about moving between positions. I mean geometries as in where you are in space. There's an important extended metaphor in the book of a chess game with Bourgeois. You talk about her as a diabolical chess master, for the way that she pits x against y, a mathematical arrangement of people as well. It's also an image that Bourgeois uses in her work, in her visual work obviously, and if you look at the text that she wrote for Artforum, she uses that vocabulary of chess-playing, of family members being moved in various positions, and her moving from each of them. In that question of architecture and position, the idea of geometry and where you are in space is essential. I'm not an expert on this, but perhaps it links with psychoanalysis, with Lacan, in the way that family roles are defined as positions from which you move. A father is not actually a father but a position that someone inhabits in a way.

RS: Well that's consistent with the way she made little notes to herself before people arrived. For example, she would write down a variety of possible identities to figure out whom she had to contend with. But if you take the metaphor of a chess board, it's a chess board in which every person is triangulated, every player is triangulated, and where the squares are triangulated as well, so there's an infinite set of combinations. But the one thing I would like to stress is that the geometries referred to here are not only rectilinear ones. The basic formal argument I like to make is that she's filling the gap between Cubism, which is a fractured Euclidean geometry, and Surrealism, which is a topological geometry. And she did this very, very early. Of course, there are other surrealist sculptors who dealt with it, but nobody got into the nitty-gritty of it the way she did and when she did. Now there are lots of people playing with topology, but in those days there weren't. And the idea of continuous surfaces and somehow taking a faceted form and turning it into a series of elastic reversible interior/exterior shapes, that was the big transformational leap she made at the end of her first period, before Nevelson stole her act.

LN: I loved your pointing to that. Do you think that she had the same manipulative grasp on understanding the formal strategies, an articulated grasp, as she did on narrating the psychological?

RS: She had studied mathematics in Paris, Poincaré had made his topological solids, which she would've seen, so the chances are she had all the information she needed. Whether she ever articulated it in the way I just did is very doubtful, because she wasn't trying to anticipate her own work. She wasn't theorizing where to go, but she would've described her variables in very similar terms.

CL: Rob, can you talk about that anecdote of her going back through the dark, through the garden, and reorienting herself using mathematics?

RS: She was in crisis. She kept talking about losing her balance and falling over. She kept talking about this incident where she got lost in the darkness[6]. She needed to get her bearings somehow and she was desperate for it. Mathematics was a kind of talisman for her, and it was not literally that mathematics did it, but mathematics was the one thing that she could think of in moments of panic that told her where she was, or where something was, with a kind of definiteness.

MS: The mathematics part was very interesting because I once did a studio visit with Dorothea Rockburne, who sits around and does calculus. The relationship with mathematics: First of all, if you consider the right-brain, left-brain thing, it's a stabilizing factor. And Bourgeois calls math "safe." There were a lot of lines in the mathematics section that took a turn, because usually when you're reading, you're anticipating how a sentence is going to play out and then you're like, "Oh, safe." When she talked about Euclidean geometry not being the geometry of pleasure—all of a sudden it became like Roland Barthes. Like, wow, what would be the geometry of pleasure?

RS: I'll leave that to your imagination.

MS: The thread which you don't overdo—which I appreciate—is when you're talking about two suicide attempts and this level of anxiety with panic attacks. There's a kind of pathology running through it, too, quite clearly, and always with her work. That's one of the beauties of the Artforum project, you know, "Child Abuse." It just puts it out there. It's not comfortable. Geometry is—speaking of abstractions—a pretty safe and comfortable thing.

RS: It's also worth saying that her brother Pierre went mad and the first versions of the stories that were told to me was that the cause was shell shock. But it wasn't. There was some profound problem and I think she feared that she had a hereditary version of it and that it would be passed along also. We don't know. The fruits of her analysis are not available, so . . .

MS: When we're talking about the literary, the French literary grounding, there is this really rich relationship with Surrealism. Even to the end of her life, you're like, "Ok, this is Surrealism," and then you start comparing her to Robert Gober and people like that.

LN: Gober's the person I thought of most often as an inheritor.

MS: Even in the early days. I love when you talk about "revenge fantasies" against Surrealism in this way where the Surrealists are occupying the gallery downstairs. It's literally like: "Louise! The Surrealists are downstairs! What are we going to do?!"[7] It's just fascinating.

LN: Of all the movements that seemed the most insistently male.

MS: Then you come to the United States where you have Clement Greenberg who also has revenge fantasies against Surrealism. What a complicated nexus!

RS: Greenberg eventually ended up in the Sullivanian cult[8]. So he was deeply involved in psychoanalysis, he just didn't want it in his art. When you read that roundtable that the Surrealists recorded about sexuality it sounds like Trump! It's that bad: It's adolescent fantasy. Imagine what it was like to hear that as a woman. Imagine what it was like to be on the receiving end of the "Truth or Dare" game that André Breton used to play. Perhaps others were not as bad as Breton, but the climate was very, very, very aggressive toward women and—

LN: Righteous.

RS:—and righteous.

CL: Léa, do you have any thoughts about the Surrealist male connection there?

LV: What I was interested in was this question of Bourgeois versus the representation of women—this l'éternel féminin—in Breton's work Nadja. A portion of the book that we haven't really mentioned is where you discuss the link between madness, writing, and creating art. You know, how Bourgeois's own writing might exist within that larger corpus. That's a really interesting and rich way of looking at her writings. And a larger question is about her psychoanalytical writings, published in 2012, and the fact that these now belong to Louise Bourgeois's work. It's quite complicated because some of these writings weren't written to be published or to be read and discussed in a critical way. But there is obviously the influence of Surrealism and there is this intertext with other writers of that period. I think the question of the Surrealist influence and also of the psychoanalytic influence pose larger questions, which is the status of those private writings and the way that we read them as well.

RS: When it comes to Louise's so-called "psychoanalytic writings," it's crucial to remember that most were written as notes to herself in states of distress; but it is also essential to recall, as I explain in this book, that she was well enough versed in psychoanalysis to have addressed matters at a more theoretical level had she chosen to. Frankly, so far as this scrapbook of introspective fragments is concerned, I don't think they made the right selections; they didn't dig deep enough, and what is there was not chosen for the right reasons insofar as all reduce the complexity of the people and relations involved to a point that diminishes her and others who are part of the story. She was not the proverbial "mad woman in the attic." As a result, they are compounding the damage done by the previously all-determining story of her father's mistress as the ur-text of her troubled life. Granted, a lot of what's there is really important, but there's a lot of stuff that's not included. The letters between her and Robert Goldwater are not in that book. Given that all the rest of the writings were culled from Bourgeois's archives, why not these important and pertinent documents? If you put them together with the diary entries where she's raging against Goldwater, you get a very different picture of both people. Their relationship of mutual support is captured nicely in a wonderful photograph, which is reproduced in Intimate Geometries, that shows Robert and Louise holding up a cloth to provide a backdrop for the sculpture Quarantania, as it is being photographed. Now, as their correspondence attests, Robert was in large measure the reason she had a career at all. He was an enormously caring and supportive, albeit reserved, man. In her commentaries, she talks about him as her mother—in a positive sense! But in most accounts I think he gets short shrift. I think, generally speaking, that the publishing of her private writings is part and parcel of the packaging of Louise, when in fact she's so much more interesting than that package.

LN: I was so grateful for your Robert Goldwater elaborations, because when I was in grad school in the '80s, you weren't allowed to talk about him. You couldn't even bring up his name in relation to Bourgeois. It was because of the fear of giving too much influence to a male in her life; you had to go back to the traumatic relation, you know, and inscribe the traumatic relationship. That made sense, but only to a point. It left out any more-nuanced sense of Bourgeois's negotiation of what was an exchange between them.I was really interested in the way that you compare the French reception, or non-reception for a while, and the reception of her work in the US. Could you say a bit more about why you think her work was overlooked in France? At one point you mention that there was reluctance from the French art world to the biographical aspects of her work.

RS: It's hard to summarize. I guess probably the simplest thing to say is that she was not one of theirs any longer: They didn't see her as a French artist. But she was too French—to use the "too-Jewish" "too-something" category—for them to embrace either. She got caught between these two cultures and was an awkward irritant. As a curator and art writer, Bernadac gets much of the credit for breaking down that resistance.

MS: Rob, what were you hoping to accomplish with the book? What did you hope to contribute to the legacy of Bourgeois?

RS: No one ever has the last word about any great artist. And yes, Louise was a great artist and as such partially answered Nochlin's polemical leading question of the early '70s about why there haven't been any. Knowing Louise so well over such a long period of time, and following the threads of her imagination to so many unexpected and emotionally and intellectually challenging places, I wanted to guide others outward from the core of her life and art in as many directions as possible—especially those that deviate from the conventional wisdom of art history and critical theory as it has evolved in the past forty years—while leaving them free to go still further, even as I used what I knew to bar the paths to reductive accounts of who she was, what she intended, and what she accomplished. I hope I have done that.

[1] The book reproduces no art works dating from 1956 to 1959.

[2] The reference is to an autobiographical audiotape and slide presentation made to accompany the 1982 Bourgeois retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

[3] The reference is to a series of five sculptures, each titled The Blind Leading the Blind, the first of which was worked on from 1947 to 1949. (One iteration subsequently was retitled C.O.Y.O.T.E., in reference to the organization founded by Margo St. James, which advocated decriminalization of prostitution.) The works rest on no base: instead, the slender personages represented by the "legs" of the piece rest directly on the floor and appear to hang from a horizontal beam, reversing the relationship of sculpture to pedestal in order to maintain the work's environmental immediacy.

[4] Referring to Robert Storr and former Brooklyn Museum director Robert Buck, a close friend of Bourgeois.

[5] In 1978, at Hamilton Gallery of Contemporary Art, New York, Bourgeois staged a performance, A Banquet/A Fashion Show of Body Parts, on the closing day of an exhibition of her work.

[6] One summer night when Bourgeois was young, her father sent her from the garden, where the family were eating supper, to fetch something from the house, a short distance away. In the darkness she became physically and emotionally disoriented and was overcome by anxiety. But, she later wrote, "I pushed the fear away—by studying the sky, determining where the moon would come out, where the sun would appear in the morning. I saw myself in relationship to the stars. I began weeping, and knew that I was all right." She concluded, "This is the way I make use of geometry today."

[7] In 1936, Bourgeois moved out of the family household, at age twenty-five, and rented an apartment at 31 rue de Seine, Paris. Shortly afterward, André Breton leased the building's ground-level space to open the Galerie Gradiva, which was briefly the Surrealists' headquarters.

[8] Referring to a cult that formed around the behavioral ideas of psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan.

Martha Schwendener is an art critic for the New York Times, a visiting professor at New York University, and a critic in photography at the Yale University School of Art. Her criticism has been published in Artforum, Bookforum, Afterimage, October, Art in America, The New Yorker, and other publications.

Linda Norden is a curator and writer living in New York and currently teaching at Cornell University. She was contemporary art curator at Harvard's Fogg Art Gallery in the late 1990s and early 2000s, taught in the first years of Bard's Center for Curatorial Studies, and was director of the CUNY Graduate Center's James Gallery from 2008 to 2010. While at Harvard, she acquired a number of Bourgeois's drawings, prints, and books for the collection, in addition to two major sculptures.

Léa Vuong is a specialist in French literature and art. She is currently undertaking a three-year research project, funded in part by the Leverhulme Trust, focusing on Louise Bourgeois's writings, her visual use of words, and the literary influences on her oeuvre to show how literature functions both as an inspiration and aspiration in her work.

Christopher Lyon is an independent scholar, editorial consultant, and the publisher of Lyon Artbooks. He has held senior editorial positions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and publishers including Bulfinch, Rizzoli, Abbeville, and Prestel. His books as author include Nancy Spero: The Work (2010), and he has written the "Artful Volumes" column for Bookforum for the past three years.

Robert Storr is a painter, critic, museum man, and exhibition-maker. From 1990 until 2002 he worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York where he was curator and then senior curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture. In 2002 he was named the first Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and from 2006 to 2016 he served as Dean of the Yale University School of Art, where he is also a professor of painting. In 2007 he served as Director of the Venice Biennale, the first American to hold that position. He is the recipient of five honorary doctorates and in 2000 he was made Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture and was later promoted to Officier of the same order.