IT’S HARD NOT to love an artist who can craft a bronze phallus, exhibit it on a meat hook, then tuck it under her arm and go. Louise Bourgeois’s feminist energy is contagious, and her art invites articulation — words called up to answer image. Her oneiric intelligence, equal parts bawdy and brutal, provokes poets to match her mixed-media oeuvre with verbal riffs. Carmen Giménez Smith invokes a Bourgeois sculpture as a figure for desire, a source of “milky, / blobbing […] star-fuckery.” Mary Jo Bang looks at Cell (Three White Marble Spheres) and sees “The crazy face / Of the day looking back with its blank / Brazen sky-high stare.” Camille Guthrie deems Fillette “accurate as the entrails of a rabbit.” Bourgeois’s messy, uncanny accuracy and her peculiar irreverence and disturbing scatology are for many contemporary poets a mother lode. In excavation of that lode, what follows is a rumination, a reading, and a review.
Looking into Louise Bourgeois’s Cell I (1994) reveals this prismatic sentence:
Pain is the ransom of formalism.
The words are embroidered with rust-colored thread on one of several burlap mail sacks that cover a metal cot, and they are the punch line of what may be Bourgeois’s most famous and enigmatic artistic statement:
The subject of pain is the business I am in. To give meaning and shape to frustration and suffering. What happens to my body has to be given a formal abstract shape. So, you might say, pain is the ransom of formalism. / B.K. Fischer, LA Review of Books