Louise Bourgeois, Eyes, 1995
In Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous portrait of her from 1982, Louise Bourgeois flashes a winning grandmother’s grin at the camera and holds under her arm, like a baguette fresh from the corner bakery, her sculpture Fillette: a latex phallus two feet long, complete with testicles and foreskin. It’s one of her most famous works, now in the collection of MoMA. But at around the same time as Fillette she made another sculpture as a sort of companion. Le Regard, another latex sculpture, depicts something like a vulva with a pair of eyes peeking out from inside. You can keep your castration anxiety; with Bourgeois, nothing is as easy as your intro psych class promised.
Eyes comes up again and again in Bourgeois’s work, especially later in her career (and Bourgeois, though she didn’t really have a “late style” à la Said, did much of her best work in the last two decades of her 70-year practice). They’re gendered and genderless at once; they’re sites of sight but also stand-ins for other parts of the body. The eye is the source of the gaze, and all the subjection it entails – but that old cliché about the “windows of the soul” suggests that the eye is also a site of penetration, wherein the outside world, in the form of the image, slips into the mind.
There are eye benches in Seattle and there were others in New Orleans, though in 2010 the latter were removed after a vandal ripped off the bronze cages over the corneas, presumably to sell as scrap. And the Met actually owns a marble Eyes sculpture, which weighs five and a half tons; it’s not on display. “Eyes relate to seduction, flirtation, and voyeurism,” says Bourgeois. She might add that they relate to the experience of art: who sees and who is seen? But unlike the eye benches, these eyes aren’t staring at us, and for Bourgeois, whose countless personal, inscrutable references can only be untangled so far, the eyes are not only eyes. Things are constantly metamorphosing in her work. Into breasts, naturally; the protuberances on the spheres look more like areolae than corneas. But not only those; it’s easy to conceive of the two eyes as two people. A romantic couple? Or even a mother and a father? Bourgeois’s work always sets off a torrent of connections and correspondences, but this is the only sculpture of hers that makes me think of Henry Moore.
Eyes is in Battery Park, not far from the Museum of Jewish Heritage.