Force of nature

Louise Bourgeois - 84, intimidating, ferocious, fragile grande dame of the surreal - talks to Louisa Buck

Louise Bourgeois is perhaps best known as the subject of a notorious photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe, which immortalises her wearing a knowing smile and cradling a huge lumpy phallus. Another photograph has her on her doorstep, wearing a floor-length latex sheath of bulging multiple breasts.

Standing on that same doorstep, then, waiting to meet this high priestess of contemporary art, is a somewhat daunting sensation. True, her Victorian brownstone in mid-town Manhattan looks pretty much like the others in the street. But the window grille is a subtle giveaway, with the bars bulging outwards and drooping downwards in two pendulous folds, as if they have melted.Inside, a young man with the ascetic face of an El Greco saint leads me through a dim maze of passages and partitions into a shadowy book-lined room, dominated by a large exhibition poster depicting a kind of obscene hermaphrodite croissant with a penis shape at either end, and a grainy vaginal split down its centre.

"It is called Janus Fleuri - that's Janus Blossoming," declares a small figure in pink nylon overalls, who has materialised at the end of the room. "It's a reference to the kind of polarity we represent." Bourgeois fixes me with a bright beady gaze that promises a far from tranquil afternoon. She is now 84, with a career that has spanned over half a century, and a formidable reputation for producing work which taps into parts of the psyche other artists are incapable of reaching.

Bourgeois was 71 years old before a retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1982 finally thrust her into the mainstream. Now, as pre-millennium tension begins to bite and emotion is back on the artistic agenda, her popularity continues to escalate. Bourgeois, however, has remained characteristically aloof. "I don't need fans, that's not my bag - I don't want to be disturbed," she says emphatically, her French accent surprisingly strong for someone who has lived in New York for over 50 years.

This is the same retiring exhibitionist who throws plates at interviewers, smashes her work in front of television cameras, and stages performances that find distinguished male curators stripping down to their underwear and parading in rubber costumes sprouting rows of breasts. The artist who one critic described as "a force of nature" displays an intimidatingly ferocious fragility. "Everything is based on fear - fear to be betrayed, fear to be trapped, fear to be dependent," she says, clutching my arm so hard that the next day I find bruises.

Walking through her labyrinthine house is just like being inside one of her ambiguously titled installations (the names Lair and Cell increasingly recur): it's never clear whether you are being protected or trapped - or both. And nowhere is more disorientating and disconcerting than Louise Bourgeois's cellar - a hot, dark subterranean chamber straight out of Silence of the Lambs. I feel even less at ease when she informs me that a previous occupant used this sinister space to take pornographic photographs. And while I am assured that the pale, bulbous cobblestones lining the floor are common to all the houses in this neighbourhood, they bear an uncannily close resemblance to the fleshily suggestive forms that regularly crop up in Bourgeois's drawings, prints and sculpture.

Although she has straddled virtually every 20th-century art movement - she studied with Leger, knew the Surrealists, exhibited with the Abstract Expressionists, and was friends with Marcel Duchamp - it is not art history but her own personal history that fuels her work. She states that, for her, sculpture is an exorcism, and the ghosts she continues to confront lie in the distant past. Never mind that she left France for New York in 1938, had three sons with her husband, the art historian Robert Goldwater, and lived with him in this house until his death in 1973; she has always claimed that the origins of her work lie in her earliest years. "My childhood never lost its mystery, never lost its drama," she asserts, while adding that "nostalgia is not productive if you go to memories, but if they come to you they are the seeds of sculpture."

Next to her chrome throne sits a cast-bronze model of an imposing house, with gaping holes for windows. It's just one among many images conjured out of a fraught childhood which was complicated and blighted by her father's 10-year affair with Sadie, the English governess who lived in the family home. More than 60 years later, Sadie and the affair continue to act as the focus for some of Bourgeois' most intense and ambivalent emotions. "I was betrayed not only by my father but by her, too, dammit! It was a double betrayal - it is the anger that makes me work." But she insists that compassion has now prevailed. "Sadie was not evil," she says, almost as if to reassure herself. "She was miserable. She was not an all-powerful Venus, she was a nanny taking care of brats."

Louise Bourgeois is far too complex an artist to produce work that simply illustrates an episode from her past. There's no doubting, however, the force of her feelings towards the adulterous father and the blond, round- faced young woman who stares out of the old photographs. At the end of our interview she sends me to seek out Sadie Richmond's family home in south London. A week later,in front of an innocuous Edwardian villa in Glenluce Road, SE3, I notice that the path to the front door is paved with swollen, rounded cobblestones. Perhaps, after all, Louise Bourgeois really is a force of nature.

n The 'Red Rooms' are included in Rites of Passage at London's Tate Gallery, 15 Jun-3 Sept; Louise Bourgeois: Sculptures, Installations and Drawings, Musee de l'Art de la Ville de Paris, 22 Jun-1 Oct; The Prints of Louise Bourgeois, Moma, Oxford, Oct-Dec

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