How Louise Bourgeois’s Multifaceted Art Practice Won Over Collectors
Portrait of Louise Bourgeois in her New York studio in 1995. Photo by Porter Gifford/Corbis. Image via Getty Images.
Since first emerging onto the art world’s stage in the 1940s, French-American artist Louise Bourgeois has both enchanted and confounded audiences with her deeply personal, strikingly enigmatic practice. Perhaps best known for her monumental spider sculptures, Bourgeois experimented with a wide array of mediums over the course of more than 70 years, approaching painting, sculpture, fiber art, and printmaking with a singular vision that positioned itself firmly within the defining movements of 20th-century art, borrowing from many but remaining her own. This expansive originality, which helped solidify Bourgeois as a titan of contemporary art, has also been the engine of her market, which is as multifaceted and far-reaching as the artist herself.
Prior to passing away in 2010 at the age of 98, Bourgeois had long since assumed her rightful place in the pantheon of contemporary artists. Her immense talent was not immediately apparent to collectors, however. According to Marc Payot, the co-president of Hauser & Wirth, which began representing Bourgeois in 1996, many of her early shows were not commercially successful. After attending a number of French art academies in the 1930s, Bourgeois moved to New York with her husband, the art historian Robert Goldwater. Her first solo exhibition, a series of 12 paintings presented at New York’s Bertha Schaefer Gallery in 1945, did not sell well, according to Payot, and neither did her sculptural work, or “personages,” which were the subject of a 1949 solo show at New York’s Peridot Gallery.
Louise Bourgeois, The Family, 2007. Gouache on paper, suite of 21. © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo by Christopher Burke. Courtesy of The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
Around the same time, Bourgeois began her first foray into printmaking while working at the legendary art school and studio Atelier 17 alongside artists and designers such as Le Corbusier and Joan Miró, expanding her material palette and producing some of her earliest—and now most sought-after—etchings and books. She also found scattered institutional success during this era, including a 1951 MoMA acquisition and inclusion in a number of Whitney annual exhibitions. Despite all this, Bourgeois still could not regularly sell her work, and would not do so for many years.
According to both Payot and Felix Harlan, co-founder of the print workshop and publisher Harlan & Weaver, Bourgeois’s amorphous practice was a prime factor in the lack of commercial success early in her career. “Her work was an awkward fit,” Harlan said. “She wasn’t really part of the Abstract Expressionist people. She wasn’t officially a Surrealist. She wasn’t a Pop artist.” After a hiatus through much of the ’50s and early ’60s, Bourgeois began incorporating new materials, such as latex and plaster, as well as more explicitly sexual content into her work. These resulting pieces found traction amid the burgeoning feminist art movement, but they did little to increase her profile among collectors.
Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1947–1949. © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo by Christopher Burke. Courtesy of The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
Louise Bourgeois, End of Softness, 1967. Bronze, gold patina. © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo by Christopher Burke. Courtesy of The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Bourgeois’s expansive materiality and sui generis approach began to attract market interest. A 1982 MoMA retrospective, along with a concurrent solo exhibition at Robert Miller Gallery organized by then-directors John Cheim and Howard Read, played a large part in this shift in public opinion, positing that Bourgeois’s heterogeneity is one of her central strengths as an artist. “Upon viewing Bourgeois’s work as a whole, one realizes that undue emphasis on stylistic analysis would be inherently unrewarding,” curator Deborah Wye wrote in the exhibition’s catalog. “Such variety in material, shape, and size is outside our experience of the formal development of much contemporary art.…And yet, although a vocabulary of shapes does emerge as being Bourgeois’s alone, the more profound basis of her work can be found only by uncovering and tracing her personal themes and their unique examination of basic instincts, needs, and behavior.”
Cheim and Read would go on to exhibit six solo exhibitions of Bourgeois’s work at Robert Miller Gallery through the 1990s and, upon opening their own eponymous space in 1997, would inaugurate their new Chelsea home with the first-ever commercial exhibition of one of Bourgeois’s large-scale spider sculptures. Cheim & Read currently represents the Louise Bourgeois Trust alongside Hauser & Wirth.
In the decade following the MoMA retrospective, the market for Bourgeois’s works in America steadily increased, with her work appearing on the secondary market for the first time in 1987. This newfound acclaim also gave Bourgeois the latitude to expand her sculptural practice, creating new large-scale bronze sculptures as well as recasting her earlier wooden works. The result was almost cyclical—as her stature increased, so too did her ability to create larger, more impressive works, which in turn further increased her stature. By the end of the decade, Bourgeois was once again the subject of a major institutional retrospective at the Frankfurter Kunstverein in Germany. The show, which opened in 1989, proved to be another important step for Bourgeois, carrying her into a decade that would see her work enter the global consciousness.
Louise Bourgeois, Conscious and Unconscious, 2008. Fabric, rubber, thread and stainless steel. © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo by Christopher Burke. Courtesy of The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
In 1992, Bourgeois was included in Documenta IX in Kassel, and the following year, she represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. “These big moments—the Venice Biennale, Documenta, MoMA—helped her market a lot,” Payot said. “And it kind of moved in parallel—on one level, new works were gaining more appreciation, and at the same time her earlier works were being recontextualized, and seen as more important, and therefore increasing in value.” This parallelism manifested in the work that Bourgeois produced during the ’90s, which included reprints of etchings and books she made during the ’40s and ’50s, as well as bold new approaches to sculpture, the most famous of which are her large-scale spiders. These towering figures represented a braiding-together of her long-developing experiments with form and her explorations of her own childhood psyche.
She signed with Hauser & Wirth in 1996, further expanding her collector base with her secondary-market prices still steadily rising, occasionally achieving six figures. By the time Tate Modern opened in 2000 with Bourgeois’s inaugural Turbine Hall commission Maman (1999), when the artist was nearly 90 years old, the market for her works had fully blossomed. The spectacle of the massive, 30-foot-tall arachnid Maman drew the interest of both crowds and collectors from across the world, and Bourgeois’s ascendant market soon became similarly multi-limbed. As a consequence of her prolific and variegated career, Bourgeois’s market developed its own sub-categories. Payot broadly classified collector interest into four distinct camps: early works, including personages and paintings; spider sculptures; fabric sculptures; and works on paper.
Louise Bourgeois, Crouching Spider, 2003. Bronze, silver nitrate patina, and stainless steel. © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo by Christopher Burke. Courtesy of The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
The success of Bourgeois’s spider sculptures is undeniable—they currently occupy 9 of the artist’s 10 highest results at auction, with the current record held by a 1996 Spider that sold at Christie’s in 2019 for $32 million. “There is no question the spider works have performed best at auction and have reached trophy status,” said Elizabeth Webb, a VP and specialist in Sotheby’s contemporary art department. “That a majority of these large-scale spiders are housed in some of the world’s most prominent museums explains some of this heightened interest.”
As Bourgeois’s spiders have become more and more difficult to procure, other areas of her market have begun to enjoy their fair share of success. This can be seen in the sale of works like Arch of Hysteria (1993), which sold last year for $5.6 million above a high estimate of $4 million, or Eye Benches I (1996), which sold at Sotheby’s sale of the Ginny Williams Collection in June for $3.3 million. Early works, too, have increasingly performed well, with the 1947 sculpture Quarantania selling for HK$67 million ($8.5 million) in 2018, and the 1946 painting New Orleans selling for just over $700,000 in 2014. In July of this year, two fabric sculptures sold for £1.2 million ($1.5 million) each at a pair of Sotheby’s sales. And while sculptures still dominate the top of Bourgeois’s markets, her print works have also become increasingly valuable, with a copy of her early folio He Disappeared Into Complete Silence (1947) selling for $516,500 at Christie’s New York in 2018.
Louise Bourgeois, The Red Sky, 2008. Gouache on paper, suite of 12. © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo by Christopher Burke. Courtesy of The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
“There is a lot of interest among people who just like her work,” Harlan said of collectors who have purchased Bourgeois prints. “I don’t think they’re always print collectors per se. I think they were just interested in their work and wanted to own something by her.…It’s really generated by how well known she became. She became a very famous person, beyond the art world.”
For an artist whose career was defined by experimentation, it’s only natural that emphasizing Bourgeois’s expansive practice was the key to unlocking her market. With exhibitions such as 2010’s “Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works” at Hauser & Wirth in London or 2018’s “The Red Sky,” which focused on late-era works on paper, Bourgeois’s wide-ranging artistry could be understood on its own terms, which, according to Payot, was essential. Though she is now seen as an artist “in her own cosmos,” as he described it, turning her singular individuality from a hurdle into an advantage took concerted effort, including years of highly specified exhibitions, catalogs, and secondary market support. Now, Bourgeois’s market looks to be as monumental as ever, particularly as collectors, curators, and institutions seek to correct male-centric canons.
“There are collectors who are now prioritizing work by women artists; there are collectors interested in the work about bodies, gender, the female experience,” Webb said. “But above all, Bourgeois’s work is about life. Any collector who is drawn to her cannot deny this aspect. Bourgeois asks us: What is the human experience? Art historical categorizations can follow—I am sure Bourgeois would agree!”
Correction: A previous version of this article neglected to mention the role that New York gallerists John Cheim and Howard Read played in representing Bourgeois’s work in the 1980s and ’90s.