What do you think of when you think ‘New York’?
I’m guessing for many it’s the skyline. The Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, maybe the Twin Towers are still there in your snapshot? Well, I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen any of it.
Three days down and there’s been no shortage of remembering what a mad, busy, but incredibly exciting city New York is though.
There’s something about the magnitude of the buildings that makes you feel so small. Was the entirety of Midtown Manhattan built for giants? Certainly, portion sizes tend to concur.
I arrived on Sunday. It was 8pm (or, as my body was convinced, 2am), but having gone through customs in record time (2 people in front of me in the queue… last time it was literally hundreds, and US Customs aren’t known for their speed), it was much earlier than I’d allowed myself to hope.
Dark and the bar across the road was proper noisy, loads of people shouting on the streets.
I’m staying in a friend’s flat in Brooklyn (he’s in the UK), 4 heavy doors to get in.
Ground floor flat.
Stumbling to find the light switches.
I spent a fair amount of time remembering why I was planning to stay in a hotel in Manhattan. You’re never far from help in a hotel (generally, though I try not to think this too much, only a few feet away in fact).
But here I was, alone, no real idea where I was. Brooklyn, yes, but how long could I go before someone missed me?
I needed to eat.
Food is a real pain at the moment. I eat a healthy diet by necessity, so burger and fries were out, and while a busy restaurant is generally a sign of a good one, I was not in the mood for noise, people, or confined spaces.
Pretty proud of myself I managed a good, cheap, healthy meal, and supplies for breakfast. Now that was a real win.
Food talk boring? It may seem insignificant to you, but to me, at that moment, this small and mundane achievement felt huge.
Daylight felt SO much better, and the gentle rumble of the subway as I lay in bed (the subway runs much closer to the surface than in London) and the telltale noises of New York (sirens, horns, I’m not even sure, I just know there’s no mistaking the noise).
Getting out of bed was easy, I had an adventure to get on with!
First stop MoMA (Museum of Modern Art).
The location of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait the biggest ever exhibition of Bourgeois’ work, specifically dedicated to her prints, books, and creative process.
Become a member. Check.
Book tickets to various free films. Check.
Enquire about a 4-week course (one day a week) that is halfway through.
Trying to find out about this course had taken up a lot of my previous week.
When Louise Bourgeois (the artist I am specifically here to study) died in 2010, she was 98.
She had lived in her house (and consequently studio) for nearly half a century, and – an agoraphobic – had barely left in the last couple of decades.
The house has been left as it was when she died.
The Easton Foundation, who is in charge of her estate (and own the building next door), are trying to open it to the public, but the red tape is making it an almost impossible task.
I had been communicating with them about it for months, and at the last minute discovered that this course included a tour of her house.
This had to be the way in, I was convinced of it. I couldn’t go to the USA specifically to study her work, and not get into the one place everyone says you can still feel her presence.
But the course was halfway through and, try as I might, nobody seemed able to tell me if this tour had happened in the first two weeks of the course, or whether it was still to come.
Until this morning, when I eventually (after several calls from the people in the Members Department) found my way to Education, and she chirpily said:
‘Oh, they went last Tuesday!’
GUTTED! Not the start I was hoping for.
I was determined this would not dampen my spirits, and can honestly say I got such a buzz from entering not just this exhibition, but all four shows that I saw. Something about being surrounded by her art just feels so right.
Ruby Wax, in her brilliant book Sane New World, calls people that suffer, and therefore understand, depression and anxiety ‘her people’.
This is how I feel about Louise Bourgeois. She is one of my people. She gets me. I get her. It feels good, very good.
Truth be told I think her work is very accessible and she has this effect on very many people, hence her eventual and much-warranted success.
But I don’t want to feel normal. This is my adventure, and for me it’s just her and me, in this warm space, agreeing on a whole lot of emotional issues.
I wander around trying to take everything in. Recognizing stuff, trying to interpret stuff, trying to work out what she was thinking, what she’s saying.
But soon enough it is time to leave, and time to meet up with Boo, a friend of Matt’s, who I’ve never met before.
It’s Monday evening in Brooklyn and a group of people disillusioned with the political situation in America are having their weekly gathering. ‘Office Hours’.
After the election, there was so much anger going on on social media that James (‘who I have now met, but didn’t know) decided to encourage people to have these conversations face to face. They still meet every week. A really nice, very diverse group of people.
A lovely way to spend my first evening.
But I was beaten, and bed called early.
I remember not why I ended up coming out the subway at 14th St-Union Square, but it took me straight into the Union Square Christmas market… so much fun, but I was trying to avoid the lure of Christmas shopping, at least so early into the trip!
Anyway, I was headed for MoMA. I had started reading the beautiful book An Unfolding Portrait that goes with the exhibition and had only seen a small part of the show the day before.
I find it incredibly difficult to see too much at once. Like my brain gets full really quickly, and I end up remembering nothing. But small doses, with cups of tea in between, suits both my mind and body.
It’s really hard to know how much of the work to actually try to share with you. I would so love to take you right there, to let you see and experience it for yourself. But you aren’t there and a rundown of the entire exhibition would very possibly send a good number of you straight back to Facebook, so I’ll try to curb my enthusiasm and just share the highlights.
However, maybe it would be helpful to give you a quick introduction to Louise Bourgeois. She is, after all, the whole reason we are here.
Born in France in 1911, a middle child. Father went to fight in WW1 when she was 5. She remembers feeling abandoned. He came home a changed man. Wanting fun and women, consequently installing his lover (only a few years Louise’s senior) in the house as the children’s English tutor. Her mother was ill for many years and Louise did a major share of her care. She died in 1932 whilst Louise was studying Mathematics at the Sorbonne (University of Paris). Her death inspired Louise to give up her studies and become an artist.
Louise met her husband, art historian Robert Goldwater, in 1938, and after a whirlwind romance, they married and moved to New York.
They had three sons. The first, adopted from France, arrived (aged 4) just weeks before their first biological son was born. The third followed fast.
Although Louise moved in the same circles as many successful (male) artists, from the post-war years right up until the seventies, she was not really taken seriously. This did not hold her back and she produced an enormous body of work.
It wasn’t until 1982 that she got her first retrospective exhibition at MoMA. Aged 70.
In 2006 Bourgeois became the highest-paid living woman artist (aged 95) after one of her spiders sold for $4m. In 1998 another sold for $4.5m. By 2011 (after her death) one sold for $10,722,500 and the most recent to sell was in 2015 for a whopping $28.2m.
She continued to work until she died in 2010, aged 98.
Even in her last hours, she is reported to have asked for paper and pen.
That evening I watched Andy Warhol’s film Vinyl in one of MoMA’s theatres. I have recently read The Lonely City : Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing. It’s not an easy read, but I highly recommend it. There’s a chapter about Warhol, and it really sparked my interest in him. Equally, this film put out that spark.
Maybe I was tired, often I find my receptors for more challenging work shut down quickly when I’m knackered, but I really struggled to get anything from this work.
I wanted to, I really did.
It reminded me of being in a room, as a student, as everyone else got stoned and thought they were having an amazing time, incredibly funny and terribly cool.
I never saw it.
Meeting with a friend, working on Broadway, for a beer was a perfect antidote.
Part Two to follow.