An interview with Jerry Gorovoy, assistant to Louise Bourgeois and President of the Easton Foundation

Magnus Bons


In an interview from 1995, with the curator and critic Lawrence Rinder, Louise Bourgeois said: “When you are at the bottom of the well, you look around and you say, who is going to get me out? In this case, Jerry comes and he presents a rope.” Bourgeois was talking about Jerry Gorovoy, whom she met in 1980, and who became her assistant for thirty years. But he played many other roles as well: as her organizer, editor, manager, curator, agent, coordinator, and path-clearer. The acclaimed critic Robert Storr has even named Gorovoy Bourgeois´ `muse´, and a person without whom much of her later work would have been unimaginable. 

Jerry Gorovoy was in Stockholm for the installment and opening of I Have Been to Hell and Back, a large thematic retrospective now showing at the Moderna Museet, with over 100 of Louise Bourgeois´ poetic and enigmatic works. I got a talk with the friendly and quiet insider of the intimate world of one of the most significant artists of the past and the beginning of the current century.

Louise Bourgeois. Seven in bed, 2001. © Collection The Easton Foundation Photo: Christopher Burke, ©The Easton Foundation / Licensed by BUS 2015

What is so striking when you see Louise Bourgeois´ art is the material consciousness in the works. She had a very elaborate sense of the different materials and she moved freely between them. What are your thoughts on how she used materials?

Louise used to say that the materials didn´t mean anything. She was not in love with any particular material, and used them to express whatever she wanted. Many times she would do the same piece in three or four different materials. Each offered slightly different feelings that she liked to explore. As it went from plaster to wax, or from wax into bronze, or bronze into marble, the same form had a different feel to her.

If you look from a chronological point of view she started with wood and went on to plaster, then did some casting, and then was into fabric at the end of her life. I think the material offered the possibilities for certain kinds of form, but the use of material had to do with her psychological need. And certain materials were more of a struggle, were a more aggressive thing. Like when you deal with marble, if you hack away you´ve lost it. The act of sawing to her was bringing things together. You could do it, you could redo it. It is a more tender kind of thing. So everything is very psychologically nuanced.

Louise Bourgeois. Untitled, 2004. © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by BUS. Photo: Christopher Burke. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth and Cheim & Read

As you said she used different materials at different times. Do you think they responded to her in different ways?

I think she felt she needed to work in a certain way. Everything had a form to her emotion, to the way she was feeling at that time. Everything. The material was important at a certain level, but it was not the most important thing. Like when you have certain artists that just love working in stone. But she didn´t feel like she had an allegiance to any particular material.

My impression is that she uses them so brilliantly.

Yes. I think she uses the possibilities of each material, in a way.

Could you tell me how you met Louise Bourgeois?

I had just gotten out of art school and I was working at a gallery. I organized an exhibition and I included an early work of hers. She came to see the installation and I met her through that. Then she invited me to her house to see more of her work. At the time, she was not that well known but she sort of had an underground reputation. I was really fascinated with her and her life and everything.

Louise Bourgeois. Sleep II, 1967. © Collection The Easton Foundation Photo: Christopher Burke, ©The Easton Foundation / Licensed by BUS 2015

But you knew about her?

I had heard about her and that´s why I put her in the show. But I didn´t know the body of work so well, nobody did, because she hadn´t shown so much at that time. I came to see her drawings and I made another show just with works on paper. Then we became friends and I was coming to see her every afternoon. She wanted me to help her with this and that. Then it went from like half a day to one day a week, to two days a week. And now it´s like thirty years later. But it was never planned, it just sort of evolved.

For me at that particular time in my life, and also with what was happening in the art world, I just thought she had made an amazing body of work. I was learning a lot about myself and a lot about her. Also I felt this woman is sort of is the real deal, and I just wanted to get the work out, so to speak.

But from the point when you met her she has made an enormous amount of new works, which also expanded in size. And I have come to understand that you played a very big part in that?

Well, the art world is a little bit of a game and for her to have an exhibition was very difficult, so she didn´t show that much. She would have a show and then she would cancel it, because she´d get too nervous. It was sort of the pact we made: “You make the work, and I do everything else.” At a certain point she stopped going to her shows, she would meet the curators but she wasn´t so involved in the installation. She came to trust me, and at a certain point I just felt she had to show if she wanted to have other possibilities.

There was also a lot of luck and certain things were happening in a way that led forward. There was a curator at MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art in New York) who was interested in her work, and Louise was given the first retrospective of a woman there in 1982. That brought people into seeing her work. And in the art world certain things were happening, like in the 60s pop art and minimal art. I think her work never related to pop art but certain things were sort of ahead of the minimal.

Louise Bourgeois. Femme Maison, 2004. © Collection The Easton Foundation Photo: Christopher Burke, ©The Easton Foundation / Licensed by BUS 2015

She was never embraced by any particular movement. She was like this lone wolf who would circle around. But I liked that, and I liked the way that her work is almost timeless in a way. There was a show of Louise recently at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, with her work from their collection. And when you look at Léger, who was also represented and with whom she studied, his work looked like a period piece. But Louise´s work could not be contained within art history the same way. It still seemed very much like its own private realm. It could have been done yesterday, or forty years ago. She was able to maintain her own world.

She was very driven by this intimate space?

She was a very anxious person, and felt she had to work, in a way. But she made art for seventy years and her production is still not that big. There were periods when she didn´t work, and before I met her she used to finish a piece and then take it apart and use pieces from it, so she could end up with nothing. Once she got what she wanted, at a certain point I would take the work away from her, because she would have a tendency to destroy or to cannibalize it.

Louise Bourgeois. Installation view, Maman (1999) by the Moderna Museet's entrance, January 2015© The Easton Foundation/BUS 2015. Photo: Åsa Lundén/Moderna Museet

Some artists do that. What has been your part in this exhibition at the Moderna Museet?

Well, the curator Iris Müller-Westermann came and we talked, but the exhibition is really her relationships and her ideas to the work. Iris didn´t want to do a retrospective, instead she wanted to get into the different themes of her work. That made sense to me. We also knew that there were going to be other big shows, like the one opening now at the Haus der Kunst in Munich on her Cells. It´s a very different show.

Like I said, Louise´s body of work is relatively small, but it´s very complex. And you can do many different kinds of shows with it. The work is very elastic that way. With some artists I think if you see one or two shows, you get the picture. It doesn´t change. But with Louise I think there´s a complexity, it´s almost as if you can see infinite connections in a way. Like all these pieces of a puzzle.

There is a lot of work here at Moderna Museet that haven´t been seen before because at a certain point we would just put works to storage. And we´d say: “Let´s sell this. Let´s keep this. Let´s hold on to this.” We´d keep works back, in a way. I was thinking maybe certain things would eventually go into the foundation.

That is the foundation of her works that you are now in charge of?

I am the president of the Easton Foundation and we are opening to the public in New York soon. She left her town house in Chelsea to the foundation, and then we acquired the next house. We are combining them so that scholars, researchers and people can come into the house. We have a small and very intimate sculpture garden there. The last end of the renovation is going on at the moment, but in September it will open.

Mathias Johansson. Louise Bourgeois N.Y.C., 1998. © Mathias Johansson

What would you say was Louise Bourgeois´ artistic drive? Why did she turn to art?

I think she tried to understand what was tormenting her at that high level of anxiety that she experienced. She wanted to be loved and she had a lot of aggression and hostility. I think she wanted to try to understand herself and just try to be a little less anxious.