Louise Bourgeois's work is based mainly on her experiences as a woman—daughter, sister, wife, and mother—which include memories of a difficult childhood in France. Her work focuses on fear, rage, love, anxiety, isolation, and unfulfilled expectations. Her interest in the human psyche seems to have given her a special affinity for the Surrealists, many of whom she befriended in New York during World War II. The resurgence of feminism in the 1970s gave her an audience and a context for the gender conflict and sexuality that inform her work. Bourgeois's sculpture, most of which dates from the last twenty-five years, fuses these two concerns, testifying to the first while giving artistic form to the second.
Bourgeois's work in the late 1980s continues her intention to recall and animate memories and experiences from her life. The title she has given the series is Cells, referring to both an organic unit of life and a spatial unit of desired or imposed isolation. For Bourgeois, each cell documents an emotion or psychic event through symbolic objects and architecture. In 1991 Bourgeois completed a six-part installation of cells, Cell I-VI, at the Carnegie International. "Each Cell deals with fear. Fear is pain...," she wrote. In Cell II, we peer into a small room, framed by hinged wooden doors, to a mirrored tray (a metaphor for loss), on which are arranged nine empty perfume bottles (a reference to the fleeting nature of pleasure), and a pair of carved marble hands tightly clenched in pain. Of this installation the artist writes, "The subject of pain is the business I'm in. To give meaning and shape to frustration and suffering. What happens to my body has to be given a formal abstract shape. So you might say, pain is the ransom of formalism."