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The PICTURE: Last of the Bourgeois

What will the artist’s legacy be?

Louise Bourgeois, who died on Monday at the age of 98, was an eccentric, a mystifier, an entertainer, and a connoisseur. Was she a great artist? Not by a long shot. When she carved wood and marble, the forms tended to be static and predictable, academic Surrealist resurrections of ideas already triumphantly explored by Brancusi, Arp, Giacometti, and Noguchi. When she really took off she was doing her own oddball thing, casting herself in the role of the magus, the high priestess of visual magic. Bourgeois was the wonderworker who brought a mandarin elegance to investigations of the carnivalesque, with her freakish sewn-and-stuffed dolls, her giant spiders, her installations involving mirrors and cages. Exhibiting to ever increasing international acclaim in the past quarter century, she became for many the grande dame of the outer reaches of alternative media and installation art. She was the old lady who could hold her own alongside Bruce Nauman and Mike Kelley. And compared with Bourgeois’s homemade dolls, those icons of nursery school diabolism, Kelley’s stuffed animals were nothing more than dime store kitsch. While Bourgeois’s discussions of her traumatic childhood quite logically led some to regard her as a Freudian artist, the spirit of her work was in fact pre-Freudian, a realm of esotericism and enigma, a twilight zone immune to the sharp analytical tools of psychological theory. Her friendships with the Abstract Expressionists and her superstar status in a globalized art world might temporarily derail but could finally not confound an imagination that came straight out of the world of Huysmans’s À rebours. Bourgeois’s was a fin-de-siècle sensibility. Memory, anxiety, desire, and hope were all grist for the aesthete’s mill, the stuff from which she concocted her inscrutably refined objects. My guess is that a few of those objects will survive, enduring oddities amid the masterworks in the museums.

Jed Perl is the art critic at The New Republic.

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