Happy Late Valentine’s Day, Louise Bourgeois

Dear Louise Bourgeois,

You probably don’t remember me, but I met you on my very first trip to New York. I was staying with my friend Yael Bartana on St. Mark’s Place, and she was nice enough to let me stay for like two weeks. So anyway, one day I was with another friend who had gone to your house in Chelsea on a class trip. When we were walking down your street he pointed to your house and said, “That’s where Louise Bourgeois lives!” Well, that was enough for me. I dragged him to the nearest bar and called up information on the phone.

My version of LB’s Woman turning into a house

I asked the operator for your number and to my surprise you were listed! My friend watched as I called you and I think your son answered (the one who wrote the book called The Spectacular Vernacular). I asked for you, and a minute later I was almost speechless when I heard your raspy, ancient sounding French voice! But you were so patient and nice as I muttered about being an artist from San Francisco and I asked if I could come by and meet you some time.

You said “From San Francisco? Well, yes of course!” but that I had to bring some of my art. And that I should come by around noon on Sunday and there would be some kind of party going on. I was oblivious to the fact that you had regular Sunday salons at your place, and that you’d been doing it for years and that it was one of those things people did all the time. I just had no clue — so naturally I felt like I was sneaking in. But you, you had seen it all — and were nice enough not to burst my bubble. Your Sunday salons had created their own little art world inside your house where rich and poor, famous and almost famous, and nobodies and somebodies could all meet and shoot the breeze. Or preen their feathers. Or talk trash.

When I got back to Yael’s place later on she was pretty surprised by my story. I then spent the next two days looking at every book I could find on your work. I sat around St. Mark’s Books digging around their art section trying to study up just in case I was put on the spot. I knew enough to know what I didn’t know and that what I knew wasn’t nearly enough.

What Louise Bourgeois’s cookies looked like

Well, Sunday rolled around, and I thought I should go a little early. Because Sunday was Valentine’s Day, I brought you a bouquet of purple irises. I don’t know why those particular flowers, maybe I remembered them in a Van Gogh painting? Maybe they just seemed right? I remember standing on your doorstep thinking how surreal it was that I was about to give you flowers. But I did not question even for one moment that it was the right thing to do. Some of my friends even urged me to smuggle in a camera or some kind of audio recorder. My thought though was that some things are best to just experience without trying to record every single moment.

Because I was early I was the first person there and so you had me sit at your little table while you heated up a kettle for tea. You then pulled out a big plate full of cookies that looked like big red lips. You walked around your kitchen getting things ready for the guests. You offered some organic bananas with the tea and we sat and talked about New York and your house. Your son fussed about for a while and I remember the smell of your house — the aroma of books and smoke and food all blended together. It had clearly been lived in for a long time. One wall was completely covered in exhibition posters, cards and flyers — all of your shows. It was an interesting monument and, I guessed, a way to keep track of time. On the other side of the room were lots and lots of books.

“Irises” by Van Gogh, 1889

I had a good half hour alone with you, and then all kinds of characters began drifting in, challenging my high school French ability. I could follow some of the conversation, but people went back and forth in French talking about their art, showing it around the table to everyone. I recall you ever yelled at one woman whose art you just didn’t like — you raised your voice and called her a bitch to her face. It wasn’t that the woman’s art was dirty or bad or anything, it was just really boring. Really boring. And her explanation of it was even more boring and dispassionate. That pissed you off, and right then I saw why so many people respect and adore you. You care. You care a lot. Not just about what you make but about what other people make, too. You care because it’s important. I like that.

So thank you for letting me sit around in your house all afternoon and for the great conversations. It made me feel welcome in New York and made me wish I could have known you longer. It’s Valentine’s Day again and I am thinking of you, and I just wanted you to know.

All the best,


Comments (3)

  • wish i had done this. always meant to. really. thank you for taking her irises. Did you take something of your own work?
    Devendra Banhart? I think Louise was the cat’s meow, and she gives me hope that by the time I am 80, I will have made a contribution.

  • Chris Cobb says:

    I did bring some of my own work, but it was small. A little sculpture I had made. She really liked it and told everyone who came around that day about it. I was very flattered.
    But in response to your comment about making a contribution… I think that’s a good way to think.

  • Jessica Pezalla says:

    this is such a great story, chris! i love what you’ve been writing here.

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