The Canadian Art Database

Terrence Heath

Louise Bourgeois: The Insomnia Drawings
The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June 14 - September 21, 2003.

BorderCrossings, Vol. 23 #1, February 2004.
[ 713 words ]

This is the story of my sleepless nights,
of my attempts to solve a problem by morning time.

(Françoise Sullivan)

In the summer of 2003, the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibited over 200 of Louise Bourgeois's Insomniac Drawings. These drawings, done with red ballpoint pen on a variety of papers, are a record of her visual and textural musings during nights that brought no sleep.

For anyone familiar with her unusual installations and sculptures, these drawings seem very usual. Some of them are simply scribbling; others have been done with a geometry set and look much like the ones all of us did at one time or another when we were bored at school. There are recurring themes. For example, a distant house approached by a long road lined with trees appears a number of times. A memory of childhood or a longing for peace and perhaps ease? There is writing on some of the drawings — lists, single words, short sentences. None of the drawings show any desire to make a drawing; they seem to be merely the scribblings, doodlings, musings of a person, any person, in the middle of sleepless nights.

The question that nagged at me as I walked around the small room on the main floor where the drawings are exhibited was, 'Why did the Whitney choose to show these drawings?' I don't think an aesthetic argument can be made for them. They exhibit none or very few of the powerful sexual and social themes of her three-dimensional work. They certainly do not look as if they were meant for public viewing. There are a few repetitive images that are not unrelated to drawings in earlier exhibitions, but which suggest themes more germane to her psychological state at the time of drawing — vortices, long roads, feathery flourishes. They are witness to her insomnia and, therefore, perhaps to anxieties and stresses in her life.

The drawings are done by a very great artist, one whose work at a rather late stage in her career swept into the consciousness of the art world and set new standards for representing the powerful, hidden drives of human beings. The first work I saw of Louise Bourgeois was Salle (Choisy, 1994) at the Ydessa Hendeles museum in Toronto. A forbidding room with walls of doors seemingly taken from an industrial building. A claustrophobic space where you could open drawers and watch yourself in small mirrors, until your feelings of guilt and enclosure were too much and you had to escape. Other pieces have been reproduced in art magazines until they have become familiar components of our view of what contemporary art is. None of this art is present in the Insomniac Drawings. So why did the Whitney exhibit them?

At first I thought the most likely reason was that they were done by Louise Bourgeois. In fact, I felt a little let down, deceived, or lured into coming to the museum by the name and then was presented with inconsequential work. But was this the result of my expectations rather than the museum's genuflecting to an art world star? There is another way to see these drawings. Drawing itself has an intimacy that most art media does not. The drawing is, so to speak, still warm from the hand of the artist. Certainly this room of drawings has the presence of the artist, not as a star, but as a human being. It is late at night, sleep is impossible, she is alone, she picks up a pen, searches for a scrap of paper, and, perhaps absent-mindedly, scribbles as her drifting thoughts dwell on childhood, things that have to be done, obsessions, the inevitable flow of time, death. Here are the pieces of paper, her nights of endless hours. They are witness for us of the vulnerability of being human, not by depicting vulnerability, but simply by witnessing it.

(Françoise Sullivan quotation is taken from a text in her retrospective at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Montréal in the Summer of 2003)

BorderCrossings, Vol. 23 #1, February 2004.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The Canadian Art Database: Canadian Writers Files

Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.