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Louise Bourgeois, ‘Cumul I’, 1969

In 1993 I curated Coming to Power: 25 Years of Sexually X-plicit Art by Women, at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York, a historical survey of four generations of woman artists in America. This included comprehensive film programmes, panel discussions, and for the most up-to-date performances the Clit Club was set up in the gallery for a night. Trash, the sexiest drag king in town, was on stage dancing topless in black leather chaps, ass cut out, huge black dildo cock, stylised sideburns and goatee. Behind her was half-naked Hannah Wilke covered with chewing gum pussies. In front of Trash hung two of Louise Bourgeois’ ‘Janus’ sculptures, 1968, her take on the two-faced Roman god that echoes more ancient deities incorporating male and female manifestations. I was doing my best hip-hop moves, dancing low to the floor straddling my friend Maria ecstatically. I rose up on the beat and bang bashed my head on this double cock? breast? pussy? I fell over, nearly knocked unconscious. I saw stars.

Walking through Louise Bourgeois at the Tate, I am knocked out once more − completely overwhelmed by her work, even to the point of nausea. Breasts, balls, cocks, vulvas, strange amorphic shapes melting into one another: I feel suffocated, as if my obese Russian grandmother were squeezing me between her breasts, I remember my mother’s large vagina, her pregnant stretched belly, varicose veins. Bourgeois’ works are visceral, there are so many palpable emotions emanating from them—anger, jealousy, love, maternity, grief, fear—absorbing me, attacking me, I feel sick. In 30 minutes I make it through, straight into a giant spider with a grotesque baby pouch, ‘Maman’, 1999. I imagine them falling all over my head. That makes me even queasier. I rush towards the river.

Returning to the exhibition a day later I try to view it soberly. A friend said she finds the work too obvious. It’s true. Some of the pieces are illustrative, even kitsch, like ‘Hysteria’, 1993, and ‘Legs’, 1986. Yet other pieces that logically ought to have these problems work perfectly. ‘Nature Study’, 1984-94, her highly descriptive marble sculpture of a headless dog-goddess squatting with both phallus and multiple breasts, feels mythical and enigmatic. ‘Camul I’, 1969, the phallic sculpture that she carved with such refinement to show her husband how beautiful his cock is, feels tender and intimate.

Walking through the show this second time, again I feel dizzy. I am imploding from so much information, so much imagery. There is too much work in this exhibition and not nearly enough. Bourgeois has prolifically made intensive passionate works for over seventy years, everyday every night, infinity. She draws all night because she is insomniac, for how many years? How many drawings? Two huge rooms are filled with giant cages and spiralling ‘cells’ that look like barn silos. Each contains a vignette, an entire world abstracted in realistic symbols. I peek in to see fragments, an overload of imagery, overloaded intimacy. It reminds me of childhood visits to the Detroit historical museum, to ghost house estate sales in the countryside. It reeks of death, hoarding, sneaking into my mother’s lingerie drawer, my grandma and grandpa sleeping together snoring—embarrassing and utterly claustrophobic.

In the final room are ‘curiosity cupboards’ of small sculptures and drawings; an intensive microcosm summing up a life’s reflections and needs. The most touching piece, ‘Couple’, 2001, depicts two hand-sewn figures making love, hanging from a single thread. Standing in front of these figures, I feel like crying. I sense love, desperation, fear. These flimsy pathetic dolls resonate with a deep internal psychic power.

In 1992 the SoHo Guggenheim planned to inaugurate their first exhibition with five male artists (including Carl Andre who had recently been accused of murdering his wife, Ana Mendieta). As part of WAC (Women’s Action Coalition), I organised a demonstration at the Guggenheim opening that raised attention to their exhibition history, which had continually omitted solo exhibitions of female and non-white artists. Many activist organisations joined together, WAC, WHAM, Godzilla, Guerilla Girls, Gran Fury… Guggenheim director Thomas Krens agreed to add Bourgeois to the list when feminist activists blocked the Guggenheim’s downtown zoning permission. Artists, galleries, collectors and curators attending the premiere chose to become part of the demonstration rather than enter the museum. At the time of this controversy, when I was doing the curatorial research for Coming to Power, it was difficult to find books on Bourgeois even at (especially at) the Guggenheim. So it is a great pleasure that there is an unusually exceptional catalogue for the Tate show, which includes a transcendentally fine essay by Julia Kristeva. To see the Bourgeois retrospective and to know that she is alive and working during my lifetime is a remarkable privilege.

Ellen Cantor is an artist living in London