Seated at her claustrophobic, makeshift editing suite inside a triangle-shaped building on Eighth Avenue and 13th Street, Marion Cajori spooled through her footage of sculptor Louise Bourgeois, mallet-wielding diva and irascible feminist art icon.
“It’s going to be difficult,” Cajori laughed, as the images tripped across the screen of her pre-digital Steenbeck.
The year was 1993. Cajori’s Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter had recently opened; the director had a vague plan for a film about painter Alice Neal. But it was the Bourgeois project that was going to occupy her mind for the next decade—along with money, her children, and the cancer she’d been diagnosed with several years before.
This week, Film Forum opens Cajori and co-director Amei Wallach’s Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine. On June 27, the Guggenheim launches its career retrospective, “Louise Bourgeois.” And on Christmas, Bourgeois turns 97, having outlived surrealism, abstract expressionism, post-minimalism—and her director: Cajori died in 2006 at age 56, finally succumbing to the disease that had shadowed her since the late ’80s.
The title connects Bourgeois to her most famous sculptures (the spider), the governess who slept with her father (the mistress), and her father’s coldness (the tangerine). “Louise had this very difficult childhood,” says Isabel Cajori Jay, Marion’s daughter and now a psychology- lab manager at Columbia University. (As a child, Isabel and her brother Florian lived in various Manhattan spaces, where their mother also worked. “I’d wake up in the morning hearing Louise’s voice,” Isabel recalls of the long shoot.)
“In fact,” she says, “the film was originally called Louise Bourgeois: The Art of Sanity. I think about that in terms of my mother: Just as Louise has had the past with her all the time, my mother had cancer following her around, no health insurance, two kids—and I think, in a way, for both of them, art was a source of sanity. I think, for many years, making the film kept my mother alive.”
“I think she was in a kind of state of denial,” says Wallach, who was an art critic for Newsday and a commentator on The MacNeil/Lehrer Report when she first met Cajori. “She was going to finish the film despite what was happening to her.”
“Dying without finishing it was her worst nightmare,” agrees Isabel.
It was a nightmare realized. Cajori managed, with the help of cinematographer Ken Kobland, to cut Chuck Close, her portrait of the portraitist, weeks before dying in the summer of ’06. But Bourgeois—which had always been problematic financially—was completed only after her death, by Wallach and Kobland.
“At the time, she had no collectors,” Wallach says of Bourgeois—meaning, of course, people who’d be interested in funding a work about an artist in whom they had a monetary stake. “After Marion died, I did go to some people—who will remain nameless—and say, ‘Do you want this film or not?’ ” They did, and the money, which had been so elusive to Cajori throughout her career, came through.
In 1993, however, Bourgeois had yet to attain her current iconic status, even though she was the U.S. representative at that year’s Vienna Biennale. It was there that Wallach and Cajori began photographing the artist’s work—shooting all night, in what Wallach describes as a painstaking process of lighting, moving, shooting, lighting. It is Cajori’s visual representation of her subjects’ art that so distinguishes her films—precisely lit, uncritically observant, journalistic. “The camera is always moving,” Wallach says. “It leads the eye.” The result is a treatment which, arguably, improves on the experience the viewer might have in person.
Cajori, the child of two artists, received a BFA from the School of Visual Arts in 1974 and proceeded to make films both abstract and narrative (1981’s White Lies featured the unknown Willem Dafoe). She was married to Paul Jay, a member of a venerable New England family, but Isabel says her father wasn’t in a financial position to fund his estranged wife’s projects. Besides, “she refused to ask for help. She was a stubborn person”—and not a businesswoman, her daughter adds. Isabel wishes she’d had more conversations about the process of her mother’s art, about the way Marion mirrored an artist’s work in her own, and about the film with which she essentially grew up. “We would discuss it a little bit,” she says. “Mostly, I would look and give her feedback. When you work on a film for so many years, you have to keep asking the question: ‘Is it any good?’ “
Film Forum thinks so. Karen Cooper, the theater’s director and a longtime friend of the filmmaker’s, has shown all three Cajori films; her husband, animator George Griffin, also served as executive producer on Bourgeois.
Given all the footage they had to work with, taken over so many years, one must credit Wallach and Kobland with the puckish inclusion of one particular Bourgeois quote: “Artists should not be supported by the government; they should be grateful to be artists,” Bourgeois says to the camera. “The artist has the privilege to be attached to his or her unconscious. And this is really a gift. It is the definition of sanity. It is the definition of self-realization.”
It is also the definition of art delayed, art frustrated—of too much time wasted in the craven pursuit of money. Of course, the sequence is insightful re Bourgeois’s worldview. But it seems the height of irony that she should say it in a film being made by a dying woman, one who had to sidestep spiders and juggle figurative tangerines to make art—art which, in Cajori’s case, was far less about privilege than it was headlong pursuit.