Entering “Louise Bourgeois: Suspension” at New York’s Cheim & Read Gallery is like walking through the brilliant and complex mind of the late artist (1911-2010). For the first time ever in her decades-long oeuvre, Bourgeois’s hanging pieces—spanning more than 45 years—are presented together. Though Bourgeois became known later in life for her sculptural works—such as her monumental spiders; totemic and uncannily anthropomorphic “Personnages,” human-size stacks of stone, wood, metal, and bronze; and her vitrine like “Cells” series, made from salvaged materials and found items beautifully constructed into eerily beautiful cages—her hanging works undermine the notion of sculpture altogether, elevating it from the pedestal. “It denies our usual expectations of seeing a sculptural work,” John Cheim told me. “And as Louise Bourgeois had said: ‘Horizontality is a desire to give up, to sleep. Verticality is an attempt to escape. Hanging and floating are states of ambivalence.’”
The show comprises two dozen works strung from the lofty ceilings of the Chelsea gallery, effortlessly floating and featherlike, belying the solid materials from which they are made. It opens with a 1947 drawing of floating abstract forms (Cheim, who knew Bourgeois for the last 30 years of her life, remembered how she made drawings almost every day, some of which were later realized as sculptures) and moves chronologically through the gallery’s four rooms. But, as Cheim points out, “her concerns remain the same throughout her life”—recurring biographical and psychological themes, such as sexual desire, the unconscious, isolation, death, and the feminine psyche. In Arch of Hysteria (1993), made from polished bronze, a phantomlike, headless male figure—his back acrobatically curved, his ribs protruding, and his long fingers nearly touching his heels—hangs from his pelvis. A later sculpture of the same title (2004), made with a ghostly white fabric, is of a male and female torso merged together at the hips, hung at their fused waist.
Figures, often elongated and headless or body-less, are recurring in Bourgeois’s practice, and appear frequently in this exhibition, some more abstracted than others. Henriette (1985) is a portrait by the artist of her sister, one single prosthetic leg dangling from the gallery’s high ceiling. In the never-before-seen Red Legs (2001), three fabric legs appearing to be that of a male, female, and child, hang resiliently. The yielding ends of works from the “Janus”series (1968), cast in bronze, recall both sexualized motifs and cartoon-like gestures. And in one of the artist’s later worksThe Couple (2007-09), at just over five feet tall and made from cast aluminum, a male and female figure are tightly coiled together, at once figurative and abstract, and erotic, passionate, and violent. All of the works embody one of the artist’s memories of her childhood: her father storing chairs by hanging them over the high beams of their attic. “It was very pure. ...You would look up and see these armchairs hanging in very good order,” she once said “The floor was bare. ...This is the origin of a lot of hanging pieces.” Like her memory, the floors of the gallery are bare, and the walls—bar from a few delicate drawings, some drawn on fabric and others ink and charcoal on paper—are empty, further accentuating the spiritual and transportive quality of the exhibition.