One of Bourgeois' earliest major sculptures, C.O.Y:O.T.E., and two related pieces, both titled The blind leading the blind1 were begun in 1941, when increased studio space gave the artist the opportunity to work on a large scale for the first time.2 Lucy Lippard has pointed out that the combination of human and architectural elements in these sculptures-legs and lintel-can be found in Bourgeois' earlier works: drawings, paintings and small carved and painted wooden sculptures in which tall, narrow buildings sprout stilts or legs.3 When she first arrived in New York from Paris in 1938 Bourgeois recalled being 'struck by the brownstones, which were a form of habitat I had never seen, and since they were very large and very high and very narrow they reminded me of the human body'.4
Bourgeois herself, however, has traced the genesis of C.O.Y:O.T.E. and The blind leading the blindto childhood memories when she and her brother crouched beneath the kitchen table watching the legs of their parents move back and forth as they prepared a meal.5 Referring specifically to the work in the Australian National Gallery, she has said:
It represents an army of legs, two by two, that holds together Eight pairs of legs. The reason this blind army of legs does not fall, even though the legs are a/ways afraid of falling, since they come to a point, is that they hold on to each other. This is exactly what I felt when I was a child, when I was hiding under the table. My brother was following me like a shadow; I was blind with fear and so was he. I don't know what we were looking at. But I was watching the feet of my father and mother from under the table, while they were preparing the meal. And I fought to myself, What are they doing? What is their game? What is their purpose? How do I relate to them? And in the end I considered that they were not friendly I decided that the outside was not friendly And I was afraid, simply afraid. I couldn't understand their purpose, which was to prepare lunch. I didn't understand why they were walking around the table. Why would one pair of legs interfere with the other visually physically? There were their legs and the table's legs. It really just made me wonder where I fitted in.6
If the form of these sculptures owed something to childhood memories, their title The blind leading the blind, (a title which was also originally applied to C.O.Y.O.T.E.), had a very contemporary relevance for Bourgeois. Taken from the New Testament (Matthew 15:14: 'if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch'), the title was chosen for works in which the artist saw 'catastrophe', 'a chain of pain', 'people fated to be destroyed together'.7 The sculptures were made at the height of the cold war, at a time when her friends, artists Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Amédée Ozenfant (1886-1966) and André L'Hôte (1885-1962), were under investigation by the House Unamerican Activities Committee.
In 1979, in preparation for her exhibition at Xavier Fourcade's Gallery in September, Bourgeois gave a new title to one of the The blind leading the blind sculptures, and repainted it, covering the original black and red colour scheme with flesh-pink paint. The new title, C.O.Y:O.T.E., stands for 'Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics' and was taken from a tract written by Bourgeois's friend Margot Saint James, in which she argued the right of prostitutes to a reasonable workers' organisation. Bourgeois explained:
'The blind leading the blind' is a piece that brings me to the feminist cause. Another, which is very close, is C.O.YO.T.E., which was the name of the prostitutes' group. All they can do is hold on to each other. Individually they couldn't even stand on their feet, but holding on to each other, they make it. It's also a comment on failures, on shortcomings, on being disabled. They huddle together, and through their positive attitude toward each other they summon the energy necessary to stand against the world. They conquer fear enough to finally express themselves and be what they are.8
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.209.
- The blind leading the blind, 1949 (painted wood, 215.4 x 241.0 x 17.9 cm) in the collection of the Detroit Institute of the Arts, and The blind leading the blind, 1941-48 (painted wood, 154.0 x 163.5 x 41.6 cm) in the collection of the artist, New York.
- In 1979 Bourgeois stated that 'in 1941 there was a turning point in the work because we moved to the so-called Stuyvesant Folly, which had an immense roof where nobody ever went and I spent my time there. It was very large and I could leave my pieces without being bothered. At this point the size and number of pieces changed' (Marsha Pels, 'Louise Bourgeois: A Search for Gravity', Art International, vol. 23, no. 7, October 1979, p.51).
- Lucy R. Lippard, 'The Blind Leading the Blind', Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts, vol. 59, no. 1, Spring 1981, p.27.
- Corinne Robins, 'Louise Bourgeois: Primordial Environments',Arts Magazine, vol. 50, no. 10, June 1976, pp.81-3
- Kay Larson, 'Louise Bourgeois: Body LanguageSpoken Here', Village Voice, 24-30 September 1980, p.83.
- Donald Kuspit, An Interview With Louise Bourgeois, New York: Random House, 1988, pp.26-7.
- Lippard, op. cit., p.27.
- Kuspit, op. cit., pp.70-2.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010