At one stroke, Hauser and Wirth has transformed London’s art map with the inauguration on Thursday of a 15,000 sq ft gallery in Savile Row, designed by Annabelle Selldorf.
Selldorf was responsible for New York’s Neue Galerie; Hauser and Wirth’s new space is similarly of small-museum quality, size and scope. Launching with Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works, a museum show imported from Venice’s Fondazione Vedova and the final exhibition with which Bourgeois was involved – she died in May, days before the Venice opening – further ups Hauser and Wirth’s game.
London is full of expensive private galleries, but this one is staking out the territory where scholarship meets commerce, and with a European slant.
A groundbreaking work, edited by Germano Celant in collaboration with the artist and her New York studio, which enriches our knowledge of Louise Bourgeois. Over a long career she worked through most of the twentieth century's avant-garde artistic movements from abstraction to realism, yet always remained uniquely individual, powerfully inventive, and often at the forefront of contemporary art. She was one of the world’s most respected sculptors, best known for her public-space pieces, grand-scale sculptures of spiders so large they must rest outside. But beginning in the 1960s, she used her own clothing and that of her loved ones as components of her sculptures and designs: a reincarnation of her childhood and her past. Her art would expand into new realms in 2002 when she began to weave together scraps of iridescent-colored fabric, creating works that vary from figures of flowers to chromatic abstractions, constituting a repertoire of truly surprising interweaves. This set of images is collected here in its entirety for the first time, constituting the closest thing yet to a general catalog.
Bourgeois’ late work – mostly since 2002 – is showcased, with a concentration on fabric pieces and a few large-scale sculptures. It includes some of her most delicate works, as well as some of her most ferocious; the tone suggests that it was in the balance between beauty and rage that her unique oeuvre is positioned.
In the north gallery, amid elegant spirals drawn on cloth, weblike patterns whose complexities recall op art dazzle, and intricately woven fabrics of contrasting, interlocking strips of material, the centrepiece, inevitably, is an arachnid: the glistening eight-metre steel “Crouching Spider” (2003). Bourgeois first drew a spider in 1947, and was always clear that in its power and protectiveness, she saw an analogy with her mother, who ran the family’s tapestry business, spent her life spinning and weaving, and was stoic in the face of unhappiness.
This show makes clear that, as Bourgeois grew older, the spider became a symbol of her own creative life: weaving her personal narrative through her art, attempting to mend suffering through it, and also reflecting the monstrousness we all impute to aspects of ourselves.
“The subject of pain is the business I am in,” she said. “I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of the spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs.”
As ever, she is saved from self-indulgence by the wit and formal integrity underpinning her freewheeling approach to sculpture. These works, made more than 60 years after she left Paris, remain very French in their rigour. Her intricately woven strips recall the modernist grid – yet some distort the orderly designs.
“Bullet Hole”, a half-open, half-closed steel and glass black cage, housing wooden orbs and bearing the inscription “Fears Make the World Go Round”, is a heavy, psychologically charged work but also a sculpture of precarious balance.
Flesh-coloured fabric forms and furs, soft, supple, sexually ambiguous in their resemblance to body parts, hang gracefully alongside chains and upside-down black mannequins in a wire mesh in “Peaux de Lapins, Chiffons Ferrailles À Vendre” (2006): a satisfying piece where menace and lyricism – underlined by the title, referring to a street peddlar’s song remembered from childhood – co-exist.
Curator Germano Celant argues that Bourgeois finally achieved an uneasy peace, evidenced by her last fabric and collage pieces, some lightened by the addition of lace blossoms or flowers.
Knowing that many were made from her own clothes – including dresses from her loathed father that she joyfully refused to wear – is affecting.
It also gives this exhibition emotional significance in closing a circle of introspection that began with tense, black drawings of her clothes as self-portraits in 1950.
“Clothing is an exercise of memory. It makes me explore the past: how did I feel when I wore that?”, she wrote. “They are like signposts in the search for the past. Time is a tributary of light, of twilight, of the night and dawn. A full daylight. That’s my madeleine.”
Bourgeois was born in 1911, just as Proust began his great novel of interiority; this exhibition confirms her as one of the last significant modernist artists working in that tradition.