Summer has a kind of Jekyll/Hyde duality. As appealing as outdoor events might sound – concerts and plays in the park, hot dog eating contests on the boardwalk – I find myself seeking cool indoor places more often than not. Two major art shows currently on view – Henry Moore outside at the New York Botanical Garden , and Louise Bourgeois inside at the Guggenheim – reflect this kind of external/internal tension, and not simply because of the obvious settings.
Moore (1898 – 1986) is one of England’s most respected and widely seen modern artists. In “Moore in America,” the show at the New York Botanical Garden his large sculptures of bronze and fiberglass span a familiar array of reclining figures, mother and child, echoes of hillsides. There is no artist whose work looks more comfortable and – in a way that demonstrates his ubiquity and legacy to public art – predictable in a verdant setting. For a viewer, the work offers numerous pleasures, and many of them stem from these qualities. Yet Moore was also a master of mass, negative space, and form.
Bourgeois (born 1911) has produced a body of work, on the other hand, that’s anything but predictable. A stroll up the ramp at the (did I say cool?) Guggenheim, unspools the artist’s progression through forms and media. It also shows her voracious and fearless – even compulsive – exploration of the psyche, and it’s this total package that makes the air conditioned environment even more rewarding.
Her “Personnages” are invariably simple – carved wooden totems, some painted, some more elaborate than others. Yet even the most reduced form takes on a personality of sorts. (These are said to have represented friends from Paris after she emigrated to New York in 1938.) They take on particular resonance when seen in a group, as in the Guggenheim’s High Gallery. Other works – a cluster of small totems of different sizes – somehow conjures an entire miniature mythical community undergoing a ritual.
Some stone sculptures show Bourgeois at her most playful and subversive. One yam-like shape drapes over another, but their implied heft, morphology, and positioning suggest flesh. Same with Cumuls, a batch of domed shapes that might be a cloud head, or a group of body parts. The soft forms contrast big time with the marble’s hardness. Her “Lairs” look like giant bee hives, inviting and yet terrifying at the same time.
Bourgeois is no formal purist, however, at some point switching from formal/allegorical work to sculptures that are more like theater sets. (In fact one winking installation is a mock proscenium theater lit like a bordello.) Her rooms – door panels strung together in a circle viewed primarily by peering through cracks – contain objects that serve as memories or associations, alchemical in their admixture… notes that when played together create a specific harmony.
Moore and Bourgeois were only thirteen years different in age. Both seem to have tuned into the prevalence of Surrealism to some extent. Yet the former feels like the standard-bearer of “Modern Sculpture,” and Bourgeois feels like, well, a contemporary artist, concerned as much with the internal as the external. Experiencing both is to witness summer at its best.
Image: Louise Bourgeois. Defiance (Le Défi), 1991. Painted wood, glass, and electrical light. 67 1/2 x 58 x 26 inches (171.5 x 147.3 x 66 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. © Louise Bourgeois