Sculpting the Presence of Absence

In her typical enigmatic manner, Louise Bourgeois once said, “Memling Dawn is a city on the river. It’s the awakening to hope from the nightmare of drowning.”[1] The artist was referring to her sculpture Memling Dawn (1951), which is one of the earliest works that mark her turn to sculptural practice from painting and printmaking. The work belongs to what is later called Personages series, a group of totem-like wooden sculptures that is often interpreted as Bourgeois’ reconstruction of the people she missed, a kind of “exorcism” of homesickness since she moved to New York from Paris in 1938.[2] It is undeniable that the artist’s public persona is closely tied to her troubled childhood in Paris, and many studies readily conclude that the some eighty pieces of vertical sculptures in the series are a large group of surrogates for the family and friends from Bourgeois’ past; few analyses attempt to understand the series from a different viewpoint, and even fewer try to study the sculptures individually and historically.

As much as one cannot take what artists say word for word, the analysis of their works should not be narrowed down to the dramas of their lives alone. As aptly pointed out by Anne Wagner, “we are not used to asking how, let alone if, Bourgeois’ narratives really matter for her work […] we have not yet found ways to separate Bourgeois’ work from its provided narrative.”[3] This essay sets out to fill the gap between public narratives and the complexity of artistic language by singling out Memling Dawn from the Personage series, it postulates that Memling Dawn is a socially and historically informed work that responds to the tumultuous change of the society after the war and the prevalent modernist culture. Taking Bourgeois’ reference to a city as a clue, this paper argues that, rather than a nostalgic reconstruction of the presence of someone the artist left behind, the sculpture manifests a kind of absence and invisibility in urban life that draw viewer’s attention to the mundane of daily experience. Such notion resonates with Michel de Certeau’s discussion of the everyday in the city, his articulation on the resistance to the standard patterns of urbanization sheds light on the historical significance of Memling Dawn.

Upright and freestanding, Memling Dawn shares some similar characteristics with other works in the Personages series; however, within this enormous collection of more than eighty sculptures spanning almost a decade, the transformation of subject matters and styles is probable and in fact notable. The series can generally be divided into two phases – the first phase includes a group of carved woods created between 1947 to 1950, which explicitly alludes to human figures in both their forms and titles, such as Portrait of C.Y. (1947-49), Observer (1947-49) and Woman with packages (1949). These figurative works have clear frontal compositions and some of them even have discernable body parts. They were originally designed to stand on their own without base, conveying a sense of precariousness; the second phase, on the other hand, begins in the early 1950s. While remaining vertical, the sculptures are characterized by the style of assemblage where small wooden pieces are stacked atop each other like “skewers”.[4] Memling Dawn, therefore, belongs to the second phase, other examples include Mortise (1950), and Untitled (The Wedge) (1950) (fig. 5 and 6). In these works, the distinction between front and back as well as the slender feature from the previous phase are eschewed, they show the artist’s experimentation with geometric and spiral forms with an obvious tendency towards abstraction. It can be argued that the biographical understanding of the Personages series applies more to the earlier phase, when the destructive war was just over, and Bourgeois was still suffering from the tremendous amount of guilt as did many artists who fled Paris during the Nazi occupation.[5] As described by Bourgeois of the fragile appearance of the sculptures at this time, “[i]t is a period without feet … During that period things were not grounded. They expressed a great fragility and uncertainty … If I pushed them, they would have fallen. And this was self-expression.”[6] However, this sense of insecurity and personal struggle gave way to the bolder exploration of forms and space in the works from 1950s, undoubtedly a response to the modernist culture at that time. In 1948, Clement Greenberg writes about the new possibility of modern sculpture in his article “The New Sculpture,” in which he argues that the “new construction-sculpture” has its origin in Cubism, and it is space rather than carving or modelling techniques that gives expression to sculptures.[7] Still searching for her own expression at that time, Bourgeois also found herself moving towards the direction of “construction” in her exploration of assemblage. It is also worth noting that, in the year Bourgeois conceived Memling Dawn, the artist had officially become an American and also her father, who is the main subject of her childhood trauma narrative, had passed away in France. These two events could have brought a closure to the artist’s past life in Europe, directing her focus to the artistic development that responds to the current social and cultural milieu.

Louise Bourgeois, Woman with Packages, 1949. Photo: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Returning to Bourgeois’ confounding quote about the sculpture at the beginning of the essay – “Memling Dawn is a city on a river”, while there is no city with the name “Memling Dawn”, let alone one that sits on a river, it is suggestive that the artist was visualizing something more than a human figure in this work.[8] Bourgeois’ interest in the relationship between human body and architecture can be traced back to her works immediately before she began the Personages series, where imageries of the body and architecture are intertwined. Femme Maison (1945-47) is a series of paintings in which the face or the upper body of a woman is replaced by a house or building, rendering the woman both inside and outside, she is both secretly seeing and being seen. Katharina Eck describes them as “a complex visual code for the interference and simultaneity of visibility and invisibility, fear and everyday life, hiding away and being kept enclosed – and also as accepting a social role (that of a housewife in this context) and as rebelling against it.”[9] It is tempting to read these works from a feminist point of view if the focus is placed on the women being trapped within – and studies of these works rarely analyze the architectures themselves (what is a housewife doing in a neoclassical building that looks more like a museum or government building than a home?), but attention on the various styles, and thus functions, of these houses and buildings actually reveals the artist’s broader concern of how an individual copes with different sociocultural circumstances. Such argument is further supported by Bourgeois’ book He Disappeared into Complete Silence published in 1947, which was little known until Bourgeois came to fame and revisited the project in 1980s. A portfolio of nine monochrome engravings that illustrate various styles of urban architecture, each accompanied by “[t]iny tragedies of human frustration”[10] written by Bourgeois herself, He Disappeared into Complete Silence allegorizes the ever shifting and alienated nature of city life by anthropomorphizing skyscrapers and city infrastructures. Despite the unfortunate human encounters described in the parables, there is not a single human figure featured in the book; instead, they are embodied by the architecture, adding to a sense of isolation in the narrative. In short, both Femme Maison and He Disappeared into Complete Silence are evidence of the artist’s deeper artistic inquiry into the shifting cityscape and its relationship with the city dwellers. The amalgamation of building and figure speaks to a life that is defined by the grid-like structures constructed by the increasingly urbanized society, accented by the vertical orientation of these works as well as the intersecting vertical and horizontal lines in their compositions.

Following this line of analysis, the essay contends that Memling Dawn translates into three dimensions the inseparable relationship between man and architecture manifested in the above-mentioned drawings and prints, through which the artist articulates the standardization and alienation of the city.[11] Rather than a representation of a person, the sculpture is marked by a sense of absence, the women and the protagonists in Bourgeois’ parables are all engulfed in the seemingly stoic sculpture. Composed of twenty-seven coarsely finished, irregular wooden blocks stacking on top of each other, Memling Dawn is scaled to the height of an average person; painted in charcoal black, it is at once a featureless stranger and a towering skyscraper that are both present and absent in our daily life. They are part of our everyday experience, but the unceasing flow of the bustling city life keeps us moving, leaving us no time to ponder on their existence. Does the “river” on which the city of Memling Dawn is located imply the endless stream of people and happenings in the city? And can we see the sculpture as a kind of anchor by which one keeps himself or herself from “drowning” and being washed away by the sea of mass culture? Elsewhere Bourgeois also describes the buildings in her compositions as being “overrun and broken by the flood of the river … Guilt and depression come after losing control. They were almost destroyed. No one can do anything against the unpredictable river. But, they are still standing … there is still life here … there can be regeneration.”[12] This narrative is evidently visualized in plate 9 of He Disappears into Complete Silence, in which three elongated buildings with densely striped pattern are awash in a deluge of vertical lines all over the picture plain that insinuates flow of water, the torrent seems to be breaking the upper part of the building in the middle and bending the building sideward; in the background there are waves of horizontal lines that suggest a “rising river.”[13] It is not without reason that such imagery of a flooding urban space and the submergence of human figures in the cityscape are also envisaged by Michel de Certeau, who writes poetically in the prologue of his book The Practice of Everyday Life that, an ordinary man is an “anonymous hero” and an “absent figure” who “[walks] in countless thousands on the street … who lose names and faces as they become the ciphered river of the streets, a mobile language of computations and rationalities that belong to no one.”[14] Bourgeois and de Certeau’s shared perception of the city reflects not only the incessant flux of urban space but also the “ciphered” nature of the urbanized society, where our daily experiences are “rationally” divided and then categorized into standardized numbers and grids, turning the everyday into everydayness, mundane and repetitive. De Certeau refers to such boundary markers as “place”, the dominant order that governs and confines our daily life in isolated fragments. However, despite the inescapability of the grid, room remains for microinventions, for the practice of reasoned differences, to resist with a sweet obstinance the contagion of conformism, to reinforce the network of exchanges and relations, to learn how to make one’s own choice among the tools and commodities produced by the industrial era.[15] These acts of resistance are what de Certeau calls “space”, individual practices that confront the established system, traversing the grids by using one’s own creativity. To borrow de Certeau’s terms, it can be argued that Bourgeois creates in Memling Dawn a “space” that not only challenges the banality of urban life by drawing attention to the homogenization and alienation of the city, but also traverses the language of sculpture through her approach to space, materials and perception.

Louise Bourgeois, He Disappears into Complete Silence.
Photo: MOMA.

After the war, the United States finally came out of the decade-long depression and was emerging as the world leader. The country was undergoing large scale urbanization which gave rise to rapid industrialization and commercialization. The art circle was also responding to the shift of center of influence from Paris to New York, where artists radically altered their practices to question the old system. While Abstract Expressionism was reigning the New York art scene as the defining style of modern art, bolstered by Greenbergian Formalism which crowned painting as the predominant medium in visual art, Bourgeois decided to experiment with sculptures on the roof of her apartment building in New York using woods collected in her neighborhood. During this period, one of the few sculptors championed by Clement Greenberg was David Smith, whose works are described as “the art of aerial drawing in metal.”[16] His works were considered the emblem of new modernist sculpture for their pictorial quality that allows art appreciation to rely solely on opticality. Going against the turbulent current of mainstream Modernism, Bourgeois constructed what she called “environmental sculptures”[17] that take into account the body of both the artist and viewers and its relationship with the surrounding, anticipating Minimalism that came only more than a decade later. Assembling Memling Dawn vertically on the roof overlooking the city with found woods, which were the materials used for installing water towers commonly seen on top of skyscrapers in New York, the artist explored the relationship between the body, the sculpture and the surrounding architecture; at the same time, the scale of the work and the use of everyday material force viewers to come face to face with the sculpture, confronting their willful blindness to the self-imposed confines of everydayness and their detached attitude towards the fragmentation of the society. By moving her “studio” to the top of the building, Bourgeois had turned herself into what de Certeau calls “the solar Eye,”[18] a voyeur who is able to read in the flooding city in its entirety what is invisible from down below – networks of ceaseless traffic flowing along intersecting grids. Similarly finding himself at such elevated vantage point on top of the World Trade Center, de Certeau describes New York city as “a wave of verticals … a gigantic rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production”[19] that continuously marches forward according to its dreamed-up concept of a neatly defined city, which disregards individuality in favor of an urban mass culture that feeds on the “cancerous growth of vision.”[20] The overwhelming amount of visuals and connections ironically blinds us from the nuance of everyday life, the invisibility of which is visualized by de Certeau in writing and Bourgeois in her anthropomorphic sculpture. On closer look, Memling Dawn is asymmetrical and slightly tilted,[21] calling to mind the collapsing building in the print mentioned earlier that resists being washed away by the river. Each wooden piece not only has different size, shape, and thickness, but their unique ring patterns are also discernible; their individuality is an antithesis to the standardization and rigidity of the grid-like cityscape; moreover, the shape of the sculpture is not fixed, the pieces can be rotated around a hidden steel axis and form numerous possible shapes. Its irregularity and instability invite active looking by the viewers, rejecting presumptions and archetypes. Oscillating between a figure and a building, the work situates viewers at two different vantage points simultaneously – on one hand, they are walkers on the street being confronted by an anonymous stranger; on the other hand, they are, like Bourgeois and de Certeau, on top of a skyscraper surrounded by other verticals (Memling Dawn) where they begin to ask themselves what they have missed in everyday life.

The interplay between presence and absence, seeing and being seen, and different viewing angles in Memling Dawn is about what and how we choose to look. On one hand, Bourgeois’ inquiry of perception in her assemblage is, to a certain extent, associated with Picasso who was one of her greatest sources of inspiration at the beginning of her career in the 1930s.[22] Its rotatable pieces set our vision in motion and its verticality and human-sized scale prompt us to look both vertically and horizontally, activating the act of looking the way the Cubist brings different views of reality into one dimension. On the other hand, the sculpture also initiates a dialogue with Constantin Brâncusi’s Endless Column in Romania, which is a monumental sculpture consisting of sixteen identical polyhedron modules stacking atop each other and extending thirty meters into the sky. It was erected to commemorate the Romanian soldiers who sacrificed themselves in the First World War. While Memling Dawn pays homage to the pioneer of modern sculpture by sharing its characteristics of repetitive stacking, the removal of base, and the allusion to infinite upward extension, it is anti-monumentalist in its human scale, fragility and bodily engagement with viewers. Rather than imposing narratives that conclude history and convey a sense of permanence like conventional monuments, Bourgeois’ work destabilizes the past and underlines the ephemeral nature of human civilization by questioning the relentless advancement of progress through her primitive-looking sculpture. Having experienced the two World Wars, the artist rejects the historical amnesia of the modern society by bringing to our attention the presence of absence, things from which we choose to look away.

As described by Robert Storr, the biographer of Bourgeois, “Memling Dawn has established itself as the missing link between Brancusi’s Endless Columns of 1918 and Carl Andre’s horizontal firebrick ‘stack’ Lever of 1966.”[23] It bridges the pre-war utopian abstraction and Minimalist skepticism of progress after the war, asking how we have turned our heads from upward looking to downward looking in the progress of modernity. Going back to her quote for the last time, Memling Dawn is “the awakening to hope from the nightmare of drowning,” perhaps the work is meant for opening our eyes, so that we can truly look what’s around us.

[1] Ulf Küster, Louise Bourgeois, trans. Michael Wolfson (Deutschland: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012), 65.

[2] Martin Sundberg, “Pillar – A Gateway Figure? On a work by Louise Bourgeois and Her Relationship with Art History,” Electronic Melbourne Art Journal, issue 5 (2010): 4,

[3] Anne Wagner, “Bourgeois Prehistory, or the Ransom of Fantasies,” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 22, no. 2 (February, 1999), 6,

[4] Elizabeth A.T. Smith, “’What Can Be Done, What I Must Learn, What There is to Do …’: Process, Materials, and Narrative in the 1950s,” in Abstract sculptures by Women, ed. Paul Schimmel and Jenni Sorkin (Milan: Hauser &Wirth Publishers, 2016), 22-23.

[5] In 1945, Louise Bourgeois curated an exhibition titled “documents france 1940-1944, art, literature, press of the french underground,” as a way “to assuage her guilt for not suffering through the Occupation” by paying tribute to artists and writers who were connected to the Resistance. See Ann Gibson, “Louise Bourgeois Retroactive Politics of Gender,” Art Journal, vol. 53, no. 4 (Winter, 1994): 44, 77756.

[6] Quoted in Gibson, “Louise Bourgeois’s Retroactive Politics of Gender,” 47.

[7] Clement Greenberg, “The New Sculpture,” Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 142.

[8] “Memling” calls to mind the 15th century Flemish painter Hans Memling, but no information is available that suggests its association with Bourgeois’ sculpture.

[9] Katharina Eck, “Protective Buildings, Exposed Bodies – The Femme Maison-Imagery in the Art of Louise Bourgeois.” Women’s Studies, vol.41 (November, 2012): 913.

[10] Quoted in Mignon Nixon, Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005), 84.

[11] Mignon Nixon also establishes the connection between the Personages series and He Disappears into Complete Silence, but the author analyzes it through the Kleinian psychoanalytic point of view, arguing that both works serve as a kind of mourning for the loss of the past. See Nixon, Fantastic Reality, 157.

[12] Deborah Wye and Carol Smith, The Prints of Louise Bourgeois (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1994), 18, 95. Also see the quote from “Plate 9 of 9, from the illustrated book, He Disappeared into Complete Silence,” Louise Bourgeois: Complete Prints and Books, Museum of Modern Art, accessed May 22, 2021,

[13] Nixon, Fantastic Reality, 115.

[14] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), prologue.

[15] Michel de Certeau, Luce Giard, and Pierre Mayol, The Practice of Everyday Life: Volume 2: Living and Cooking (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 213, ProQuest Ebrary.

[16] Clement Greenberg, “David Smith,” Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 204.

[17] Sundberg, “Pillar,” 8.

[18] De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 92.

[19] De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 91.

[20] De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, xxi.

[21] Küster, Louise Bourgeois, 65.

[22] In the first chapter of her dissertation, Catherine Burge quotes from Bourgeois’ diary and her correspondences with her friends in which she constantly mentions Picasso’s style being her artistic direction. See Catherine Margaret Burge, “Disagreeable Objects: The Sculptural Strategies of Louise Bourgeois.” PhD diss., University College London, 2004.

[23] Robert Storr, “Arachne on 20th Street”, Louise Bourgeois: Homesickness (Yokohama: Yokohama Museum of Art, 1997), 138.