An afternoon with Louise

“We are all together,” said the old woman in a thick French accent, as she stared at the eager group seated on stools in her living room. She had just maneuvered in slowly with her walker, a fragile-looking thing wearing sweatpants and big black tennis shoes. Kylie Lockwood, a young Detroit artist, scribbled the sentence in her journal. It’s one she’ll remember for the rest of her life, because it came softly from the mouth of an icon.

It seems unfathomable that hanging out with an internationally renowned artist is a phone call away. Still, for the past 10 years, sculptress Louise Bourgeois, age 93, has given out her home number and invited strangers into her living room to talk about art, eat grapes and rich chocolate, and drink cognac.

Lockwood and fellow College for Creative Studies students Erin Somerville and Miroslav Cukovic, and alumnus Nolan Simon, well-spoken and mature twentysomethings, recently told me about their experience at one of the Sunday salons in New York City. As I listen to them, Bourgeois’ actions don’t seem as interesting as the insights the foursome brought back about Detroit and their art, and about what being out in the world does for an artist.

The French-born Bourgeois has worked in the United States since 1938. Her work has been tied to such major movements as abstract expressionism, minimalism and feminism, and she is considered a leading 20th century sculptor. In recent years, her insomnia drawings, 220 notebook pages of thoughts and doodles from sleepless nights, have been hits at the Tate Modern in London and the Whitney Museum in New York.

Lockwood and Somerville got their hands on the artist’s telephone number last year. Recently, Lockwood found the courage to ring her up. A couple of weeks later, at 3:30 p.m. on a Sunday, the Detroiters showed up, armed with flowers, wine, examples of their artwork and sweaty palms. They arrived at the modest house in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood to find a handful of others on the stoop chatting — artists, poets and writers who had traveled from France, Argentina, Belgium and Italy to share a conversation with Bourgeois and participate in an informal critique.

The residence had the look of a home whose owner has better things to do than decorate. The guests walked through a narrow hallway, brushing against peeling paint, and entered a tight living room crowded with old, mismatched furniture. The only small clues of a big existence were flat files and walls shelved with books, videos and papers, decades of words and images. There were other clues pointing to a high-profile life, an occasional note from an artist-celebrity, such as one scribbled by Richard Serra on the back of a postcard: “Louise, I’m coming to pay you a visit.”

Bourgeois’ entrance was profound, and it would have resonated more were it not for the unexpected appearance of another bigwig, Robert Storr, former senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. But like the ordinary guy from the Midwest that he is, Storr poured himself Jim Beam and said, “Let the Midwest people go first.”

Cukovic pulled out his found objects, a hefty stack of old library checkout cards, the kind used to track book-borrowing in years past. Storr looked at each one carefully, cracking jokes with Bourgeois, occasionally in French, when he recognized a title. He enjoyed the card for a book by big-chested modernist critic Clement Greenberg that was last marked out in 1992. Later, Storr took Cukovic aside and asked how much he wanted for it. A clever kid, Cukovic propositioned him: “You give me your address, I’ll mail it to you, and you mail me something back.” Storr agreed.

Simon went next, pulling a sculpture out of his book bag and explaining the theory behind his minimalist stainless steel and plastic artworks. Storr caught on quickly that Simon used automotive paint. “This is definitely from the Motor City,” he said. Throughout most of the conversations, Bourgeois ate chocolate and stayed relatively quiet. But she gravitated toward Lockwood’s work, when the young artist presented Bourgeois with a porcelain rabbit head attached to a muslin sack of flour, referencing childhood and maternal instinct.

“We weren’t sure if Louise was, you know, ‘with it,’” recounts Simon. “But every once in a while she’d say something that was spot-on. One woman brought 300 paintings to show. She said she’d been working on her art 14 hours a day for 25 years. Louise just looked at her and asked, ‘Really? How do you make a living?’”

It became obvious that some artists don’t take criticism well. Somerville suggested that one woman read a book, and the woman looked back as if she had no idea what Somerville was talking about. In their small community, the Detroiters are pretty harsh with each other. Somerville remembers thinking, “We want to get pushed. That’s why we’re here.”

Another woman dumped small blue cubes on the floor and called them “building blocks of the cosmology,” explaining that her work describes absolutely everything. Cukovic takes intuition seriously, but warns that art suffers if you take yourself too seriously.

Throughout the afternoon, Simon recalls, the other artists kept making “I love Detroit” type of comments. At one point, a guest said of a fellow artist’s work, “It looks like you’d do well in Detroit.” Storr piped in, “I don’t think anyone does well in Detroit.” Simon and Lockwood took that as a compliment. A thick skin and a sensible dose of self-awareness are two traits born and bred in Detroit, a city that is great for working, if not selling.

They decided the difference between Detroit and the East Coast is not the quality of art being shown. The difference is New York keeps evolving. More art needs to come in and go out of Detroit. It’s a problem that Detroit galleries almost exclusively show Detroit artists. Simon explains, “We need to bring other people in and push our art out, keep it full of activity.”

It’s like the students’ experience at the salon. Cukovic sensed it was “a mindful investment, a pilgrimage. You catch up, digest it and spread it around, see what you want from it and bring it back.” Somerville thought, “We now have a cursory connection to all of these people … I like that.”

Finally, as quietly as Bourgeois began the evening, she ended it. Her flask-toting son Jean-Louis, whom she calls “The Official Clown of France,” wanted to party, but around 7 p.m. his mom walked the room, whispering gently in people’s ears, “Get out.”

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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