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Structures of Existence: The Cells

13.10.2016 - 26.2.2017

Passionate, painful, dramatic and extremely personal. The Cells by Louise Bourgeois – higly original spatial scenarios, which she did not start working on until she was almost eighty – took over the Louisiana South Wing.

Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) is one of the most striking and influential artists of the 20th century as well as a central figure in Louisiana’s collection with the Spider Couple. This sculpture is from 2003, the very year when Louisiana first presented the artist retrospectively. Now it was time for a new major exhibition that concentrates specifically on another of the artist’s most original work categories: The Cells.

The term cell plays on all the meanings of the word – from prison cell to monk’s cell to the smallest biological units of the body. Each work is an independent spatial unit filled with carefully arranged objects which in inter­action with cell walls of glass, wire mesh or old doors create sensory, psychologically tense scenarios. As always with Bourgeois, her personal history, pain and passion are the starting point for the works, which at a general level are about the familiar connection between body, architecture, objects and memory.

The exhibition occupied the entire South Wing of Louisiana and featured 25 Cells on loan from collections all over the world as well as a selection of smaller sculptures, paintings and drawings. The exhibition was the first of its kind and had been organized by Haus der Kunst in Munich in collaboration with Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk.

C. L. Davids Fond og Samling supported the exhibition.


Louise Bourgeois with her parents, Joséphine and Louis, in 1915. Photo: © The Easton Foundation 

In the garden of her home in Choisy-le-Roi, 1916. Photo: © The Easton Foundation  

Louise Bourgeois dressed in a sweater by Sonia Delaunay in 1929. Photo: © The Easton Foundation  

Beside the sculpture of the Little Mermaid on a visit to Copenhagen, 1932. Photo: © The Easton Foundation  

With her three sons in Easton, CT in 1945. Photo: © The Easton Foundation  

Louise Bourgeois in her home studio in 1974. Photo: Mark Setteducati © The Easton Foundation 

Louise Bourgeois in 1975 wearing her latex sculpture Avenza (1968-1969). Photo: Mark Setteducati, © The Easton Foundation 

With her assistant Jerry Gorovoy in the studio in Carrara, Italy in 1981 with marble works in progress. Photo: © The Easton Foundation

In her Brooklyn studio, 1982. Photo: Allan Finkelman © The Easton Foundation 

Louise Bourgeois in her Brooklyn studio, 1991. Photo: © Inge Morath / Art: © The Easton Foundation 

Inside the plaster cast of In And Out, 1995. Photo: Bob Spring / Art: © The Easton Foundation 

With a fabric sculpture in progress, 2009. Photo: © Alex Van Gelder / Art: © The Easton Foundation 


Louise Bourgeois lived to the age of 98, and in the last twenty years of her career she began in earnest to work in large formats with among other works the Cells after she obtained her first real studio in 1980 in a closed-down garment factory in Brooklyn, New York. The size of the place enabled her to create works on a much larger scale than before, when the artist had worked in her private home.

Objects from the abandoned factory as well as doors, windows and other found elements from containers and clearance work around New York became important artistic material for the Cells. These things, with their clear traces of the passage of time and previous use, are combined with sculptural elements made by Bourgeois herself.


Life and art seem almost inseparable when it comes to Bourgeois. Her personal history, pain and passion fuel an art in which she reworks family traumas and the relationship with her parents and between the genders with equal proportions of hypersensitivity and ruthlessness. Louise Bourgeois’ parents earned their living selling and restoring old tapestries.

As a child and a young woman Louise would often help her mother with the restoration work. The many needles, threads, textiles and tapestry fragments in the works point to this history.

The Cells also retain traces of the frayed relationship between her parents, where her father’s overt affair with the family’s English governess, who lived in their home, created conflict and left its mark on the young girl and teenager. A tangle of feelings of betrayal, care, love, rage, powerlessness, insecurity, anxiety and fear would subsequently leave their mark on all of Louise Bourgeois' art.


Today it is not possible to enter all the Cells, although that was originally the artist’s intention. We are kept on the margins of the intimate spaces and can look in through openings and cracks like curious voyeurs. With everyday objects familiar to our bodies and our experience – beds, tables, chairs, perfume bottles, clothes – the Cells stand as alien yet recognizable scenarios that freely admit our own interpretations.

The artist herself described the works as representations of pain: “The Cells represent different types of pain: the physical, the emotional and psychological, and the mental and intellectual. When does the emotional become physical? When does the physical become emotional? It’s a circle going round and round. Pain can begin at any point and turn in either direction."


Bourgeois created a total of 62 Cells, including five works she herself regarded as direct predecessors. At Louisiana 25 of these were shown, from the earliest to the last. This was the first time so many Cells had been brought together in one exhibition.

Structures of Existence: The Cells was not built up strictly chronologically, but started with the earliest Cells – as well as a precursor of the series – in the first room. The Cells I-VI have walls made of doors and mysterious rooms to be discovered inside and were created for the Carnegie International exhibition in Pittsburgh 1991. These six works were in fact the first ones Bourgeois called ‘cells’.  Here they were reunited and shown together again for the very first time since their Pittsburgh debut.


Bourgeois is well-known for her large spider sculptures. Playing on the common fear of spiders, the artist saw
 the spider as a caring and protective creature – a weaver, like her mother, who restored historical tapestries in the family’s tapestry workshop. Signifying motherhood and maternal responsibility in general, the spider embracing this Cell carries three glass eggs in its belly.

The web of the spider here becomes architecture, which contains tapestry fragments and other objects from Bourgeois’s life that recall memory and the passing of time. Two pieces of hollow bone form a pair of glasses looking through the mesh to the empty chair. One of the tapestry fragments inside the cage depicts a putto in which the genitals have been cut out. As a young girl the artist had helped her mother do this on demand of tapestry owners who wished grapes inserted instead.

For Bourgeois, the spider was an ode to her mother: “... she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and useful as an araignée [a spider].”


  • Born 1911 in Paris, Bourgeois spent most of her childhood in the nearby suburb of Antony, where her parents had a tapestry restoration workshop. Her father had a tapestry gallery on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris.
  • In 1932, Bourgeois enrolled in the Sorbonne to study mathematics, but soon after her mother’s early death the same year, she abandoned math and began to study art at various ateliers, including that of Fernand Léger.
  • In 1938, Bourgeois married American art historian Robert Goldwater and moved to New York City. They had three sons.


  • In the mid-1940s Bourgeois developed her first wooden sculptures. These tall, slim Personages were shown as an environmental installation at the Peridot Gallery for the first time in 1949.
  • Bourgeois participated in several group shows with the so-called Abstract Expressionists, and was in contact with European artists in New York such as Marcel Duchamp and Joan Miró.
  • With the death of her father in 1951, Bourgeois fell into a deep depression and began psychoanalysis. During this period she showed sporadically, but did not have another solo exhibition until 1964 at the Stable Gallery in New York City, where she presented a series of organic shapes in plaster, latex, and rubber.
  • In 1980, Bourgeois met her long-time assistant Jerry Gorovoy, and acquired a spacious studio in Brooklyn where she, almost 70 years old, started working in architectonic scale, as seen in this exhibition.
  • In 1982, Bourgeois was the first woman to have a large scale Retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
  • Bourgeois worked until her death in New York in 2010, 98 years old.