After her death on May 31, the Daily Telegraph in London wrote of the Franco-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois that her “works made her a feminist icon and influenced a generation of artists.” One of those works has been located in downtown Manchester for more than 30 years and almost no one knows about it.
The sculpture, “Facets to the Sun,” has been on display at the Norris Cotton Federal Building on Chestnut Street since 1978, but this is a surprise to some of the major arts organizations in the city. Georgie Reagan, an honorary chair at the Manchester Arts Commission, knows almost everything about local art. But she didn’t know about Bourgeois’s sculpture. Neither did the Franco-American Centre, whose vice-president, Adele Baker, had seen Bourgeois’s work in Boston but had no idea a piece existed in Manchester.
How then did a work by Bourgeois, who was profiled by PBS, written about in the New York Times and exhibited around the world, come to the Queen City? The surprising answer is: thank the federal government.
The U.S. General Services Administration’s (GSA) Art in Architecture program has commissioned more than 400 pieces of art in federal buildings across the country since 1972, according to Jennifer Gibson of GSA. Any time there is a new building built or renovated, the Art in Architecture program uses a small percentage (½ or 1 percent) of the construction budget to commission art work by an American artist.
“One of the wonderful aspects of the program is that you have art work available in places other than traditional venues,” Gibson said. “In some towns this is the only artist they have in their community.”
In 1978, America was in the midst of an energy crisis, and the Norris Cotton Federal Building was seen as an ambitious experiment in energy conservation, according to Gibson. This, along with the crisp New Hampshire air, inspired Bourgeois, who had been chosen for the new building project and visited Manchester before she began her work.
“...I was aware of the crispness and light quality of the air, and I was aware of the sun,” Bourgeois said, according to a brochure available upon request at the Norris Cotton building. “I was also aware of the loveliness of the town. And these impressions stayed with me as I was working on my project.”
The final sculpture consists of 36 black painted steel cylinders embedded in concrete with polished steel faces that point up toward the sun and reflect it in different positions. The original project cost $35,000. But the finished product wasn’t exactly how Bourgeois intended.
It seemed both the government and Bourgeois assumed the other was going to provide a base for the sculpture. So the sculpture sat without a true base until 2007, when the McKay Lodge Art Conservation, Inc., of Ohio, the sole company that maintains the GSA art projects, fixed the problem by designing a new base after much collaboration with the Bourgeois Studio. This renovation project cost $100,000, which was funded by the federal government.
“This is a very important piece of artwork to have in your city,” said Robert Lodge of McKay Lodge Art Conservation.
If it is so important, who then is Louise Bourgeois?
Bourgeois was born on Christmas Day 1911 on the Left Bank in Paris. Her parents, with whom she had a contentious relationship and who were the inspiration for much of her work, owned a gallery. In 1938, she met and married the art historian Robert Goldwater and later moved with him to New York City. By the 1950s, she seemed poised to make the jump to international stardom, but the art winds blew in the direction of Abstract Expressionism and Jackson Pollock stole her fame.
By the 1980s, she was being discovered by many for the first time. Today she is most known for her 35-foot-tall bronze spiders in galleries around the world, revealed in 2000 when Bourgeois was well into her 80s.
Her sculptures often dealt with the fragility of the human body and its need of protection in the world. It was a subject Bourgeois could relate to. When her mother died in 1932, she attempted suicide, goaded by her own father, who made fun of her mourning.
“The subject of pain is the business I am in,” Bourgeois was quoted as saying in the New York Times. “To give meaning and shape to frustration and suffering.”
Bourgeois died at 98 from a heart attack. But her work lives on. “Facets of the Sun” is located in the southwest plaza of the Norris Cotton Federal Building and is open to the public.
For a woman who didn’t reach fame until so late in life, it seems only fitting that her work is still being discovered.