When French-American artist Louise Bourgeois passed away in May 2010, most remembered her as the “Spider Woman” thanks to her Maman series—giant metal spiders scattered all over the world in a macabre modern art gesture of maternity. Literally trapped in the shadow cast by those mammoth mothers of her own invention, Bourgeois’ other work done over her nearly century-long life has been sadly neglected. Germano Celant’s Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works brings together for the first time Bourgeois’ mostly non-arachnid art. Taken as a whole, Bourgeois’ oeuvre seems a complex web of personal and philosophical associations, but Celant acts as the perfect guide to lead you not necessarily to safety—for Bourgeois is never safe—but to a greater understanding of this complex and important artist.

Celant, a specialist in contemporary art and theory, seems the perfect match to stand beside Bourgeois psychologically and philosophically. Having already tangled with Aldo Rossi, Piero Manzoni, and the Arte Povera movement, Celant certainly has the critical chops to untangle Bourgeois’ web. Celant worked closely with Bourgeois and her studio in the making of this catalog, which is as close to a blessing as any artist can give.

Celant’s essay, “Dressing Louise Bourgeois,” literally undresses the persona Bourgeois formed around herself in order to redress her for a fresh audience. This reclothing begins with an examination of the role Bourgeois’ parents’ tapestry shop played in her upbringing. (Celant assembles a “memoir” by Bourgeois from previous statements by her that brings this period vividly to life.) Celant sees the fabric of that tapestry shop as “an inner, secluded, perhaps prohibited wealth” from which Bourgeois has drawn ever since beginning as an artist in 1949. For Celant, “fabric” in Bourgeois’ art “has been the locus of a desire to ‘repair’ memory and the past” in which “weaving [becomes] a narration of the self.” Bourgeois takes the feminine activity of weaving cloth to construct a self capable of tearing free of the boundaries of conventionality. Pretty clothes that trap a woman in her gender become the conduit by which Bourgeois achieves the ugly and bizarre and, therefore, the reality of herself.

For example, the Cells series of the 1990s presents “theaters of a physical and mental disintegration, almost a murder,” according to Celant. In Cell (Arch of Hysteria), Bourgeois sawed away the head and arms of a figure arching up from a bed either in pain or sexual pleasure. On the bed sheet appear the words “je t’aime” over and over—French for “I love you.” Is that profession of love real or cruelly untrue? Cruelty seems to rule the scene. “It is a move from the passive to the active,” Bourgeois once said of this piece. “In my art I’m the murderer.” Revenging false love of the past, Bourgeois slices her way to independence on an ironic bed of sweet nothings. Celant selects such enlightening passages from Bourgeois’ vast body of artistic statements to cut to the heart of what she was saying in her art.

What I found most intriguing in this catalog of Bourgeois’ art was her “fabric drawings” (such as Untitled from 2005, shown above). Celant sees the same tension between opposites in these stitched works, with the stitches, “being both rough and fine,” acting as sutures or scars on the flesh of the fabric. In a nod to Maman, Bourgeois often used spider web patterns, sometimes in various colors. “[T]he figure of the radial drawings,” Celant writes, “centripetal and centrifugal, implies the desire to change, as well as to take anxieties and neuroses in—toward her own centre—and at the same time to get rid of them—toward the periphery of the ego.” Bourgeois thus simultaneously brings in all her angst and casts it away in the vast web of personal and aesthetic associations built up over decades of art-making. In isolation, such works may seem meaningless. Linked to the rest of Bourgeois’ work, as it is in Celant’s catalog, these fabric drawings radiate with meaning and connect in the imagination.

Speaking of her Confrontation series, Bourgeois once said, “We have to come to terms with ourselves, with how bad we are, how limited we are, how short our life is.” In her 99 years of life, Bourgeois confronted herself, her gender, and her past over and over. Germano Celant’s Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works takes that century’s worth of effort and confronts us with a stunning body of art, much of which remains to be untangled. Some of the last works in the catalog show Bourgeois playing with clock themes, as if she sensed her time was running out. Looking at much of Bourgeois’ art, you see the same themes and ideas repeating again and again, as if time would never run out. “The repetitive motion of a line,” Bourgeois remarked of her web-like fabric drawings, were the same to her as “to caress an object,… rocking a person to sleep, cleaning someone you like, an endless gesture of love.” In Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works, Germano Celant has performed an “endless gesture of love” for the artist and for those looking to understand her art.

[Image: Louise Bourgeois. Untitled, 2005. Fabric, 16 x 21 inches (40.6 x 53.3 cm). Ursula Hauser Collection, Switzerland.]

[Many thanks to Rizzoli for providing me with the image above from and a review copy of Germano Celant’s Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works.]