Artist Louise Bourgeois Dies At 98

Artist Louise Bourgeois died in New York at the age of 98 Monday. Known primarily as a sculptor, Bourgeois was a leading figure in 20th century art. Her works were provocative and disturbing, but often playful.

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Artist Louise Bourgeois created works that were provocative and disturbing and often playful as well. She began making cutting-edge art back in the 1930s and continued to create until the end of her life, which came on Monday at the age of 98. NPR's Neda Ulaby looks back at one of the leading figures in 20th century art.

NEDA ULABY: A massive bronze spider lurks at the edge of the National Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. The deeply ridged bottom of its round little belly hangs near the head of Sandy McCarty, a visitor from Chesapeake, Virginia.

Ms. SANDY MCCARTY: It doesn't frighten me.

ULABY: But the spider at least startles most visitors, who glance at its high arching legs and are reminded of something from another planet.

Ms. MCCARTY: Yeah, "War of the Worlds," that's what it reminds me of. Just because of its spindly legs - creepy looking.

ULABY: "Spider" was a recent work by Louise Bourgeois. Born in Paris on Christmas Day, Bourgeois spent most of her life revisiting themes of sexuality and trauma. Her inspirations sprang from a childhood she described as sacred and profane and charged with the realization that families can be found wanting.

In 1993, Bourgeois discussed the ambiguities of her work with NPR.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Ms. LOUISE BOURGEOIS (Artist): There is an ambivalent quality, but this is true of all my work. A very intense tenderness and a certain kind of violence. But I was used to that. I was brought that way.

ULABY: When Louise Bourgeois was about 11, her nanny became her father's mistress. That open secret strained a household whose head was already hard to please. As an art student, Bourgeois befriended the great Surrealists. She moved to New York in 1938. Museum curator Jeremy Strick says Bourgeois was known as an artist's artist - well-respected but obscure. That changed with a 1982 Museum of Modern Art retrospective. Almost overnight Bourgeois became a star.

Mr. JEREMY STRICK (Director, The Museum of Contemporary Art): It was recognized that here was this absolutely major artist whose work had anticipated many of the key movements that had followed her.

ULABY: Those movements ranged from minimalism and conceptualism to the current handcrafting trend. Her oddly sculpted figures were wood, marble, rubber or latex. And Strick says she made grotesque fabric dolls with names like "Obesity" or "Bulimia."

Mr. STRICK: Any number of the works are quite suggestively titled. One of her most important sculptures, for example, titled "The Destruction of the Father."

ULABY: That was also the title of a famous installation, another form of art Bourgeois pioneered. The 1974 work shows the aftermath of a dinner where the crazed children of an overbearing patriarch rise up, kill him and eat him.

Jeremy Strick.

Mr. STRICK: Imagine a stage and you're looking in and there's sort of a central table with stools around it, and then these sort of orbs that are suspended from the ceiling, their red lights giving the whole thing an absolutely lurid cast.

ULABY: These room-sized projects were often described as lairs. In a 1987 documentary, Bourgeois was asked if she feared being literally boxed in.

Ms. BOURGEOIS: This is not one of my fears. I do not expect to be trapped. In fact, I rather expect to be on the opposite end. I'm interested in trapping.

ULABY: Louise Bourgeois became a feminist icon. But Strick says the artist did not see herself as oppressed.

Mr. STRICK: There was nothing - nothing of the victim about Louise. I mean she was a diminutive woman, a little over five feet tall, but extraordinary force of will, force of nature. And she could be alternately as charming as you could imagine and then shift in an instant to being almost terrifying.

ULABY: That phenomenon was familiar to young artists who for decades flocked to her Sunday salons. The formidable, fun, but rather dangerous old lady exerted enormous allure.

Ms. BOURGEOIS: Trapping to me means seduce, right? So it is a friendly trapping.

ULABY: Louise Bourgeois believed that confronting memories of pain and shame rather than avoiding them allows people to be their best.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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