The designation of an artist's “late work"—as in the case of Paul Cézanne or Pablo Picasso—often implies a slackening of formal criteria and an introspective, if not nostalgic, attitude that results, ultimately, in a clarity of vision. For Bourgeois, these qualities held true for an aesthetic production spanning six decades, during which she created a rich and ever-changing body of work that oscillates between abstraction and the visceral representation of psychic states. What unifies Bourgeois's myriad drawings, installations, and sculptural essays in marble, wood, metal, plaster, or latex is an intense emotional substance that at once exposes facets of her own personal history and confronts the bittersweet ordeal of being human. Present throughout the oeuvre is a fusion of seeming opposites, a deliberate dismantling of Western dualistic thought, which rends male from female, order from chaos, good from evil, pleasure from pain. In many of her anthropomorphic sculptures, Bourgeois merged images of breasts and vaginas with representations of penises to create ambiguous but, nevertheless, complete entities. The tension between diametrically opposed emotional states—aggression and impotence, desire and rejection, terror and fortitude—was explored in her late work.
In haunting assemblages of collected objects that trigger memory and association, Bourgeois contemplated the various permutations of pain. According to the artist, the elegant sculpture Le Défi (1991) symbolizes self-preservation in the face of adversity and anguish. Composed of delicately but tenaciously balanced shelves supporting manifold glass containers and mirrors, all of which belonged to Bourgeois, Le Défi suggests the strength achieved by acknowledging, even embracing, vulnerability. Whereas her carved stone sculptures represent defense against pain through rigidity—a resistance under pressure—the open, transparent vessels in this work signified, for Bourgeois, the courage to reveal feelings of inadequacy, fear, and loneliness. The soft light that shines through them from a hidden source of illumination expresses the will to adopt this particular strategy of defense, in which one is utterly exposed yet self-possessed and thus secure. Fragile yet resilient, ephemeral yet exceedingly tangible, Le Défi is essentially a three-dimensional poem that bespeaks the emotional struggles at the core of Bourgeois's art.