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Genevieve Walker: Louise Bourgeois, The Mathematician

August 17, 2011

Is it possible to express emotion through numbers?

By Genevieve Walker

genevieve.jpgJust last month in the yawning, wood-paneled gallery of the Wade Thompson Drill Hall inside the Park Avenue Armory, New York City, artist Ryoji Ikeda’s “Transfinite” spilled numbers down a 40-foot screen. The installation piece, on show from May to June, was a double-sided screen with cascading code projected onto it and accompanied by a soundtrack of static blips. Visitors could “experience infinity” from the inundation of curated data by taking off their shoes and sitting in front of (and on) the projection. It was a poetry of 1’s and 0’s.

Roughly seventy years before, when numbers made sense, not art, Louise Bourgeois disavowed her degree in mathematics in order to be an artist. “You’re told that two parallels never meet, and then you learn that in non-Euclidean geometry they can easily come together. I was deeply disappointed, and turned toward the certainties of feeling,” she told the New Yorker in 2002. A world apart, Bourgeois wouldn’t live to see Ikeda’s “Transfinite,” but “The Fabric Works,” the last show she worked on before her death in 2010, was hung at the Cheim and Read gallery, just across town in Chelsea, that same month.

The first time I saw photos of Bourgeois’s work I was an undergrad in college. In a dark auditorium with raked seating where each row floats in a galaxy of darkness, her “Mamans” were projected in front of us like a Burton-esque nightmare. But the technical acuity—so thoughtfully constructed—made me dive into her work for the rest of the semester. I was fascinated by Bourgeois’ steely resolve, her uncompromising attitude, “I am an intimist… being an intimist, my motivation is not to communicate. Communication never happens anyway,” quotes Paul Gardner for his book, Louise Bourgeois (1994). Her art is “confessional,” emoting her complicated childhood—philandering father, conniving mother—and imbuing her work with the ambiguity and unanswered questions of Surrealism. Though she would not credit any schools of artistry for her style.

Born in 1911 and educated in Paris, Bourgeois turned to art in a time redolent with art movements; Filippo Tommaso Marinetti had already written about “dynamism” in the “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” (1909), and Marcel Duchamp painted “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” (1912), both paving the way for the Dadaists. There were the Surrealists, the Constructivists, the Cubists, the Supremacists, and the Bauhaus. The bulk of the two-dimensional art produced then was geometric abstraction; bold colors, heavy outlining, lots of text. While she was in school, Bourgeois apprenticed with Fernand Léger whose work was a sort of figurative Cubism.

Call me a philistine, but I’d never really seen the esthetic resemblance to her art precedents until I saw “The Fabric Works,” which is made up of primarily geometric, two-dimensional cloth patterns, and framed like paintings. The relatively petite pieces are a mix of spirals, concentric circles, and simple rectangular pairings of patterned fabric. Two installations; spindles and fabric sacks, are set in glass.

And in particular, one set of framed fabric drawings. Each showing something like an ocean’s horizon, the series is made up of 12 pieces. Starting on the far left, the first drawing is a simple pairing of blue hues: one rectangle on the bottom, one on top, and a strip of blue in between. Incrementally, the series changes from blue to black, and the horizon diminishes, showing what looks like a sun (or a moon), with arching rays shooting out from its center. On the right is a nearly black canvas with a white circle near its center. The sequence alludes to a chronology (day to night?) or a narrative (a ship at sea?) that doesn’t quite fit with the one Bourgeois has provided for the rest of her work. It was Futurism; it was math; it was the Past. And I wondered: would Bourgeois have remained a mathematician if, when she was still an undergraduate, it was possible to express emotion through numbers the way Ikeda has?

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Genevieve Walker is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer, illustrator, and a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at N.Y.U. You can follow her on Twitter @pickled.

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