Skip to Main Content

Louise Bourgeois: No Exit

November 15, 2015 – May 15, 2016
West Building, Ground Floor, Galleries 22 and 22A

Louise Bourgeois, My Hand, 1997, drawing, National Gallery of Art, Promised Gift of Dian Woodner. Photography © The Easton Foundation/ Licensed by VAGA, NY. 

This exhibition is no longer on view at the National Gallery.

OverviewLouise Bourgeois’s (American, born France, 1911 – 2010) took up art in 1933. Her early work was influenced by surrealism, an artistic, intellectual, and literary movement that championed the creative potential of the subconscious mind. Yet the artist bristled at the association with that movement. As she wrote: “At the mention of surrealism, I cringe. I am not a surrealist.”

Bourgeois preferred instead to identify herself as an existentialist. She imbibed the writings of the philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus — her generational peers — and often quoted Sartre. She even named one of her sculptures after his 1944 existentialist play No Exit, in which three strangers are forever trapped together in a room. To a great extent, her work addresses existentialist concerns born of a period of war, conflict, and distress: the struggle of choosing to live meaningfully and authentically in an uncertain, hostile, and indifferent universe. While Bourgeois’s illogical spaces, irrational juxtapositions, and distorted anthropomorphic forms might appear surrealist in nature, her subjects testify to her commitment to existential thought. He Disappeared into Complete Silence (1947), an unbound book on view, is exemplary in this regard. The engravings of eccentric structures and strange apparatuses, which recall the cold and impersonal architecture of surveillance or imprisonment, are paired with pithy parables described in the book’s introduction as “tiny tragedies of human frustration.”

Organization: Organized by National Gallery of Art, Washington

Attendance: 71,919

Bourgeois, Louise
American, 1911 - 2010
Press Event: Louise Bourgeois: No Exit
Audio, Released: November 9, 2015, (31:18 minutes)