And about time, too

Louise Bourgeois was a late starter. Her great work didn't appear until 30 years ago, when she was in her fifties. But we've had to hang around until now to get a retrospective. By Tom Lubbock

Louise Bourgeois is very old, which is just as well. At the time another artist's career might have been over, hers began. She was born in France in 1911. She's lived in the US since 1938. She didn't start making the work for which she's famous until the late Sixties. She's now the leading woman sculptor of the century. She's needed her long life, and we're lucky to have had it too.

We're not so lucky, in this country, never to have seen a full Bourgeois retrospective here. What we've had, through the Nineties, is a series of small showings, and the latest of these, Louise Bourgeois Recent Work, is now at the Serpentine Gallery. This bitterness is a pity because Bourgeois' work does make up a world, a personal mythology, in which every piece can relate to every other. On the other hand, you couldn't really call a show, whose centre-piece is a colossal iron spider filling a whole room, particularly obscure.

Quite the opposite. Bourgeois' art is about as obscure as fairground. The puzzle is how it gets away with being so obvious, so vulgar. Its subjects are straightforward: sex, power, suffering, the home. Its language is easy, para-figurative. Grasp the idea that almost anything can stand for the human and for human relations, and you're there. Stylewise, it's prodigal, eclectic, unfussy. It's bound by no aesthetiquette about materials or skills or look.

Bourgeois does it every way (though now, at 87, she mainly directs assistants). She does ancient and modern, exquisite and rough. She carves in marble and casts in bronze. She assembles and constructs from found stuff - and she has an enormous stock of properties to pick from, accumulated over the years, in what must be the largest old curiosity shop in the world. And she sews - the skill most relevant to the present show, which dwells on motifs are stitching, weaving, spinning; hence spider.

And she can make so free because her work's driving force isn't aesthetic. It is confessedly autobiographical - all, Bourgeois says, all still a working through of her troublesome childhood home. One can well believe this, but I don't know how interested we should be in the details. After all, we can never be so interested as the artist herself. The story of the philandering dad, the long-suffering mum, the little girl they competitively wooed and spoiled, the whole keyed-up family romance: it can't do much more than set a tone. But no doubt this avowed self-centring is what releases Bourgeois from artistic niceties, from labels (surrealist, feminist), from formal purism, from set topics and issues. Indeed, oddly enough, it's probably what gives her art its admirable breadth of sympathy.

Bourgeois is a dramatist. She dramatises, first, at the level of the medium. She sees how the human body can identify with many different materials, with stuffed fabric, with solid rubber, with wood. And these varying embodiments aren't in themselves jarring or disturbing; rather, a generous recognition of the human range. They make you feel that marble and bronze are a limited menu for what bodies may be made from. True, Bernini could hardly have fashioned Apollo and Daphne in stuffed stretch-jersey - but then he could hardly have carved in marble such a lovably lumpish and intimate image of love-making as Bourgeois' Couple.

Often it's an empty garment that does for a person. In Spindle a pair of combinations are suspended, ankles just off the ground, from the end of a great curved metal rod, arcing over from a flat base on the floor - an off-balance construction, steadied by a heavy cluster of metal tubes (quasi-genitalia?) dangling on the opposite side. As usual in Bourgeois, the specific story may be obscure, but the essential drama couldn't be clearer: mutual support, mutual dependency.

The show is full of hanging and the metaphors of hanging. Spindle is a variant of a series of pieces called The Poles, upright metal stands with arms sticking out and things hanging from them - hanging like dresses on a hanger, or a weights on a balance, or meat on a hook, or decorations on tree, or bodies on a pillory or gibbet. Bourgeois can fall into melodrama. An untitled pole has six withered slips and nighties suspended from it, but instead of a coat-hanger, the shoulder straps of each frail garment are hooked around a great chunky bone.

But what's impressive is how much she isn't a sentimentalist. She generally doesn't deal in oppressive monster-objects, and poor little (or plucky little) victim-objects, and their confrontations. There's plenty of pain and pathos in her work, but the staging of it is objective.

In Respite for instance, a pole supports an array of large spindles of black cotton. From each a one a length of thread, needled, is drawn out, and ends up stuck into a long, pink, lump of solid rubber, also dangling from the stand. It might be an enormous tongue, or elongated scrotum, but it's too abstract to be more than just non-specific fleshy.

And rubber: how well Bourgeois understands it, a stuff we immediately sense as being like our bungy selves, and then startlingly unlike, so dumb and dead. Is the pink thing in pain or not? If not, is that because it's gone numb with so much needling? And the spindles and threads make up a kind of nervous system, don't they? In these pieces, every opposition is a reciprocity, with no plain goodies and baddies. Each part has a life of its own.

It's a life rooted in the tensions and ambiguities of Bourgeois' anthropomorphism, the way that her things always survive as things, as well as being bodily and psychic metaphors. The giant Spider though startling, doesn't really work. It's too much a literal spider and too much an allegory of weaving. In fact, this failure is a good clue to Bourgeois' essential genius. What's lacking here is the very graceful relationship between object and meaning.

This is what saves their obviousness. This is what makes it sensible to praise Bourgeois' late art so highly. It's not only that her sculptures are free of flesh-creeping and tear-jerking, and that they don't feel like specimens in a pre-programmed argument - salutary those these qualities are, given the work of many of her contemporaries, young and old. It's not only their breadth and balance of sympathies. It's that they're made with love. The things are respected for themselves, and for the metaphorical tasks they're got to perform. It's continuous with child's play, with a child's handling of (and talking to) its improvised toys. It's the best reason to be grateful the old lady never grew up.

Louise Bourgeois - Recent Work: Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2; daily, until 10 January; admission free

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