Thursday, July 3, 2008

Movies: Louise Bourgeois: The Mistress, the Spider, and the Tangerine

This mediocre documentary is being shown in conjunction with the Guggenheim's Louise Bourgeois retrospective; for a fleeting moment, I feel bad about saying that it's not very good, since it was directed by Marion Cajori, the late daughter of my mother's still-living college art teacher and mentor, Charles Cajori, but alas, one cannot pity the art because of the artist's circumstances. Which applies to Bourgeois herself; I'm not particularly fond of her work, and in fact most of it raises in me a tendency to be plain mean, if not just dismissive. In the film's most touching moment (the discussion of the Tangerine), Louise, recalling a story about her father's cruelty when she was a mere child, breaks into tears, as she explains why children hide in their beds at night and cry. Seeing this tiny old woman shuddering over something that happened more than sixty years ago will pull your heart strings, and you will pity her; however, you must maintain your resolve when examining her work, and not give credit merely for personal mythology.

For Bourgeois, personal mythology is the mousetrap; it has caught her, and it threatens everyone in her circle—her dealers, her curators, and these filmmakers in particular, who, rather than focusing on the actual creation of the work (the few moments in which they do are the film's most fascinating), instead look at old pictures and ask the artist questions about her childhood, her emigration to the U.S., and the "meaning" behind her pieces. I'm generally less interested in hearing artists expound on what they mean to mean than on how they make their work. I like to know the exact degree to which things are planned, the depth of craftsmanship. For example, Bourgeois is most well-known for her gigantic metal spiders which outweigh and outsize her quite considerably. But each spider is different, and their legs have organic details—lumps and bumps, twists, etc.—to what degree does she plan these details? How are these spiders made? Are they casts? Does she herself work in the medal shop, or does she order them to specification, as Donald Judd would his boxes? Bourgeois appears to be a very physically engaged artist, her hands, like spiders themselves, grip and grasp and shape small things, flutter over the work, sensing its shape. And yet, she is so small, so bent, so old (96 this year)—I don't imagine her climbing up ten feet to pound out the spider's body with a mallet. That is what I want from a film about an artist, not a depiction of how ornery she can be, how wise, or how funny. I don't care about the person. I care about the work. And if you need to understand the person in order to understand the work, than the work is not good enough. Perhaps that is rather cold, but that is how it is.

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