Louise Bourgeois, Eyes

Louise Bourgeois, Eyes, 1982. Marble, 74-3/4 × 54 × 45-3/4 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art Anonymous gift, 1986 (1986.397). Photo by Mark Menjivar.

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Valerie Fletcher: Louise Bourgeois was born in France in 1911 and her remarkable career went on to span seven decades. In 1938, she married the American art historian Robert Goldwater and moved to New York. Robert Goldwater was an expert in primitive art. He wrote the first classic art historical book on the subject at least for Western audiences. From this, Bourgeois learned a lot about the power of basic ideas, symbols, and forms to communicate emotion and meaning often of a deeply personal kind. She believed in the power of the unconscious. She is profoundly informed by psychoanalysis and by feminism. She didn’t sculpt until after World War II when she began to make wood constructions.

In the late 1960s, she began to carve marble and it became one of her favorite materials. She once commented about how materials each have their own qualities and they interact with the artist’s subconscious and the result can be sometimes quite unpredictable. For example, she used malleable materials like plaster and resin and latex to create organic biomorphic forms often suggesting sexuality, fertility, and growth.

In Eyes, the sculpture here from 1982 was done when she was already 71 years of age and yet was carved by hand. It’s quite different; rather than a soft malleable material you have superb quality marble from Carrara in Italy. She liked the transformative process of working with stone. She felt that marble in particular, which has a crystalline quality that when you carve into it, you can reveal hidden little facets which can catch the light and she used this characteristic of marble when she carved Eyes, so you have the smooth, firm, highly polished forms of these two spherical eyes staring from atop of this giant cube. The cube has rough faceted surfaces, which catch the light. This contrast between smooth and rough was something that Michelangelo had used in this carving and especially Auguste Rodin had done in 1890s. In this case, the eyes are clearly not meant as descriptive of anyone person’s eyes, but rather they are symbolical or emblematic eyes. These are eyes that she once spoke of as the eyes that can look outward on reality and look inward on her own personal fantasy. Portraying them in stone may perhaps express the strength of the human gaze, but it also suggests the essential impenetrability of each individual.

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Louise Bourgeois, Eyes, 1982.

American, born in France, 1911-2010

Born in Paris to a family of tapestry craftsmen, Louise Bourgeois moved to New York in 1938. Initially a painter, Bourgeois turned to sculpture after World War II, using the roof of her apartment building as a workspace. Although much of her art was motivated by early traumatic events and the resulting psychological turmoil, her sculptures communicate universal concerns, including identity, gender, childhood, sexuality, motherhood, and the continuing power of past and current experiences.

Bourgeois absorbed key ideas from avant-garde art movements, notably surrealism, primitivism, expressionism, and conceptualism, as well as from non-art sources such as psychoanalysis and feminism. In the early and mid-1960s, she worked with malleable materials such as plaster and latex to create organic, biomorphic forms that often allude to sexuality, fertility, and growth. Bourgeois first began to sculpt in marble in the late 1960s, selecting her stones from the famous quarries around Carrara, Italy. She liked the transformative process of working from an inert block, stating: “The drilling begins the process by negating the stone. . . . The cube no longer exists as a pure form for contemplation; it becomes an image. I take it over with my fantasy, my life force. I put it to the use of my unconscious.”

A remarkably active artist, Bourgeois carved Eyes at the age of seventy-one, shortly after she began to withdraw from social functions in order to concentrate on her art. Despite the hardness of the material, she often arrived at suggestive organic forms, including individual body parts, such as a hand, ear, or leg or, as in this case, eyes. The latter carry many associations, particularly the connotations of “seeing”—literal eyesight, spiritual vision, and windows into the soul. In Bourgeois’s sculptures, the eyes usually stare out from deep sockets with unnerving directness. She once indicated that she did not distinguish between “eyes that see the reality of things or . . . eyes that see your fantasy.” 

Louise Bourgeois, Eyes, 1982. Photo by Ben Aqua.
Louise Bourgeois, Eyes, 1982. Photo by Robert Boland.

Location: Bass Concert Hall Lobby

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