Empty Nest is one in a portfolio of fourteen drypoint etchings collectively titled Autobiographical Series. It depicts a woman sitting on a stool, her legs bent with her feet up on another stool and her hands covering her face, hiding its expression. The title of the image suggests that this expression is one of pain and sadness; possibly she is crying. The space around her is large and empty, reinforcing the sense of abandonment and loneliness. Bourgeois adopted a child in 1939 when she feared she would not be able to conceive, explaining: 'the fear of not having children made me hysterical'. Shortly afterwards she had two babies of her own (in 1940 and 1941) but recalls: 'the anxiety persisted after conception … when the children are much older you are afraid of something else. You are afraid of losing them; you are afraid of being abandoned; you are afraid of becoming aggressive; you are afraid of lots of things' (Bourgeois, p.125). Empty Nest depicts this feared state: the mother who has lost her children.
Bourgeois's work is based, more or less overtly, on memory. The recounting of her early years has become a fundamental part of her artistic expression, a narrative which, despite having been told many times, retains for the artist its emotional intensity. Through her work she is able to access and analyse hidden (but uncomfortable) feelings, resulting in cathartic release from them. She has said:
Some of us are so obsessed with the past that we die of it. It is the attitude of the poet who never finds the lost heaven and it is really the situation of artists who work for a reason that nobody can quite grasp. They might want to reconstruct something of the past to exorcise it. It is that the past for certain people has such a hold and such a beauty ... Everything I do was inspired by my early life.
Printmaking, like drawing, has been an important element in Bourgeois's artistic production. She first took it up in 1938, the year she moved to New York with her husband, the art historian Robert Goldwater (1907-73). She experimented widely with techniques and effects, producing an important portfolio of etchings titled He Disappeared into Complete Silence (The Museum of Modern Art, New York) in the 1940s. After a long break she took up printmaking again in 1973, the year Goldwater died. In the late 1980s Bourgeois began collaborating with workshops and publishers. She started to rework and reprint some of her old plates and to create new portfolios. Several of the images in the Autobiographical Series had already appeared in earlier forms. They range broadly in time and concept, encompassing both specific memories and more abstracted and ambiguous states of being. The portfolio was published in an edition of thirty-five plus ten artist's proofs by Peter Blum Edition, New York, and printed by Harlan & Weaver Intaglio, New York. See Tate P77682-91 and P77693-5 for the other images in the series.
Louise Bourgeois, Marie-Louise Bernadac, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Destruction of the Father/Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews 1923-1997, London 1998
Charlotta Kotick, Terrie Sultan, Christian Leigh, Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory, Works 1982-1993, The Brooklyn Museum, New York 1994
Deborah Wye, Carol Smith, The Prints of Louise Bourgeois, exhibition catalogue, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1994