Show and Tell: Louise Bourgeois and her Sunday salon
by Kelly Devine Thomas
A few minutes before 3:30, Jerry Gorovoy lets them in. Those who showed up early had been asked to wait outside. It is a mild, bright afternoon. Children are skateboarding on the sidewalk halfway down the block from the four-story brownstone in Chelsea where Louise Bourgeois lives, works, and has hosted a salon every Sunday for more than 30 years.
The artists file in, carrying notebooks, bags, and cardboard boxes, through the dark hallway and past a wooden staircase to a room at the back of the house where a blue couch, metal stools, and old wood school chairs are assembled in a circle. Pouran Esrafily, who attended her first salon in 1994 and is making a documentary film about the sessions, is busy depositing plastic cups and bottles of liquor and soft drinks on a small table in the center of the room.
The wooden floors creak. Stuff is everywhere. Crammed on a table in the corner are a large bottle of aspirin, a shiny red heart, a can of Lysol, two lamps, rubbing alcohol, paper towels, and a bulky calculator. Filing cabinets and bookshelves line the room. A bulletin board that runs the length of one wall is layered with old museum and gallery posters, articles, and a bumper sticker that reads “Honk If You Hate Fission.”
In the hallway Gorovoy and Paulo Herkenhoff, a former curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art who attended his first salon in 1985, survey the prospects. “Sometimes there are only a few people,” says Gorovoy, Bourgeois’s assistant for the past 25 years. “Other times, so many people show up they literally have to be turned away.” Artists are advised to call ahead for an invitation. Bourgeois’s number is publicly listed, and all are welcome. “There are only two rules,” says Gorovoy. “You can’t have a cold, and you have to bring your work.”
Artists of all kinds—painters, writers, poets, sculptors, dancers—fly in from around the world to attend. Some, like Jonas Mekas, Joan Jonas, and Guillermo Kuitca, are famous; others are unknown. The proceedings are unpredictable. “Some get drunk and nasty,” says Gorovoy. “It can become like group therapy. People can break down and leave crying.” On occasion, people fight, get jealous, take their clothes off, or are thrown out, but today’s group, Gorovoy and Herkenhoff concur, seems fairly docile.
Esrafily invites everyone to sit. Louise is ready to begin. Sunday is supposedly Bourgeois’s day off from the studio, but Herkenhoff scoffs at the notion. “She has been working today already,” says Herkenhoff, who takes a seat near the yellow French doors that open to the kitchen and asks the names of the four artists in the room. Sitting on the couch is Trenton Doyle Hancock, from Houston, Texas, who attracted attention in 2000, when, at 25, he was included in the Whitney Biennial. He is in New York for his show, which opened the night before at the James Cohan Gallery.
Beside Hancock are his wife, Monica Vidal, and her friend, New York artist Min Koo, who has brought homemade chocolates filled with pears, apricots, and nuts and laced with rum and bourbon. Opposite sits Brooklyn artist Debbi Sutton, who moved to New York from London 13 years ago and wrote her dissertation on Bourgeois. “I’ve meant to come for years, but I kept thinking, ‘After the next piece I’ll be ready,’” says Sutton. “Ten years later I was able to pick up the phone.”
Looking on is David Procuniar, an artist who began making prints with Bourgeois after attending his first salon in 2001. Absent today is Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art and Bourgeois’s biographer. Ten minutes into the session, he phones. “When he does not come, he calls,” says Herkenhoff.
Bourgeois enters from the kitchen using a walker. “Holy mackerel!” Esrafily proclaims as Bourgeois passes through the French doors into the room. “Say it! Holy mackerel!” The group chimes in, “Holy mackerel!”
Esrafily guides Bourgeois into the wooden chair next to Herkenhoff. Small and slight, Bourgeois, 94, wears a white shirt and black knee-length leggings. “So our guest of honor is Paulo,” she says in a soft voice with a French accent. “Since you are the guest of honor, you tell me who goes first.”
Herkenhoff asks who has traveled the farthest. Hancock quickly volunteers his wife, but she demurs.
“Texas, get over here,” Esrafily, who is filming the session, barks playfully, directing Hancock into the chair opposite Bourgeois. Between them is a table on which he rests three sketchbooks and his artist’s book called Me a Mound, which was recently published by PictureBox and the Cohan Gallery. “I was here before,” Hancock says, “and I told you about how I write stories and I illustrate the stories.”
“Yes,” Bourgeois replies, nodding.
Hancock shows his sketches and explains that his absurdist paintings and drawings often involve evil vegans—vegetarians who don’t consume any animal products—who battle half-animal, half-plant creatures called “mounds.” The narrative originated from his encounters with Vidal’s vegan roommates in Pennsylvania, where they both attended graduate school. “It wasn’t so much what the vegans practiced or what they believed in,” says Hancock, who was raised in Paris, Texas, by his father, a Baptist minister, and his mother, who puts bacon even in her vegetables. “It was that they were very preachy about it and unbending and unwilling to see other points of view. They made you feel very guilty. In my own way, I got back at them by putting their images in drawings and paintings.”
Herkenhoff suggests that Hancock read something to Louise, and he recites verse from his recent show, “The Blestian Room,” explaining that the made-up word combines “blessed” and “Christian.”
“In the Blestian room, bonuses are given out early. In the Blestian room, missionaries are positioned. In the Blestian room, text is taxed.”
Bourgeois perks up, smiling. “Sex is what?”
There is boisterous laughter. “Wishful thinking, Louise,” Esrafily says dryly.
Now it’s Sutton’s turn. From a large cardboard box she produces pieces of a disassembled three-legged chair wrapped obsessively in white string. Sutton says they remind her of remnants that one might find in an archeological dig. Bourgeois handles the work, one in a series of “meaningless chairs” that Sutton has cast in latex and wrapped in used bandages, among other things. “It is very interesting,” Bourgeois pronounces. “We give her applause.”
Vidal approaches Bourgeois sheepishly. “I didn’t know that I was going to be coming here, so all I have is my sketchbook that I just started,” she says. Bourgeois asks her to explain the sketches, which Vidal describes as volcanic islands that she will eventually transfer in gouache onto four-foot-square canvases. Esrafily thinks they “look like tits.”
“That’s what I said,” Hancock exclaims. “She called me crazy.”
Bourgeois asks her about another drawing. “Oh, those are little piles,” says Vidal. “Piles of what?” Bourgeois inquires. “They look like penises,” Esrafily volunteers. “Piles of penises.” Bourgeois, whose work often explores the body, gender, and sexuality, doesn’t bat an eyelash. Vidal laughs, “I guess they’re all sex landscapes.”
When it is Koo’s turn, she opens small satchels and black boxes from which she removes handmade objects. “I started off with jewelry. I thought about the preciousness and the way people are very delicate with them.” Bourgeois takes hold of what Koo describes as a fertility necklace, nods appreciatively, and wonders aloud how it clasps.
“Can you put it on?” Bourgeois asks. Koo fastens it around her neck and then places before Louise an array of silver miniatures of fat ladies in yoga poses. “I was thinking I would put them in little medicinal jars,” says Koo, “and you could just drink from it and you would get the benefits of yoga.”
Next she reveals her drawings of nude “plumpers”—women of a certain size—sketched from Internet porn sites. She became intrigued by the expressions of the women, particularly the amateurs. “None of them ever looks very happy or very sexual,” says Koo. “They just kind of look exposed.”
A lengthy discussion ensues over whether fat can be beautiful; the purpose and intent of pornography; if the women are powerful or if they are being victimized and abused; and America’s puritanical hang-ups about nudity. Bourgeois listens attentively but does not participate in the conversation. In the end, Koo has only one question: “Can I be sued?” Procuniar replies, “If you publish a book of a hundred photographs of a hundred plumpers from the same Web site, expect to get sued.”
Shortly after 6:30, Esrafily thanks everyone for coming. The salon has come to an end. Herkenhoff and Esrafily bustle around the room, cleaning up chocolates, dishes, and drinks, and hastily ushering the artists out the door. Bourgeois remains seated as the artists thank her and say goodbye. Esrafily sweeps behind those who continue to talk and dawdle, “Out. Out. Take it outside.” The sun has set. It is time to go.
Kelly Devine Thomas is senior writer of ARTnews.