Louise Bourgeois was most famous for her giant spiders. Photograph: Christopher Felver/Corbis
Louise Bourgeois, the French-born, American-based artist best known for her sculptures of vast metal spiders, died yesterday in a New York hospital at the age of 98. Bourgeois, who only found widespread acclaim late in life, had suffered a heart attack at the weekend, a spokeswoman said.
With her death, American and European art has lost not only a tremendous and hugely influential artist, but a direct link between the art of the 21st century and belle epoque Paris, with cubism, symbolism, surrealism and abstract expressionism, and all that followed.
Born in Paris, on Christmas Day 1911, she recounted that the attending doctor had told her mother, "Madam, you are quite ruining my day." Her personality and her art were to match, and there are few artists who have claimed so outspokenly that their work has been founded in childhood and adolescence.
Her parents ran a prosperous family business devoted to the repair and resale of medieval and 17th and 18th century tapestries and textiles, living above the showroom in Paris.
As a child, Bourgeois had a talent for mathematics. In adolescence, she began helping in the workshop of the business, repairing the destroyed lower portions of old tapestries, sewing fig-leaves on to the genitalia of the naked figures on works destined for prudish American collectors. At about this time her philandering father introduced his lover, an Englishwoman called Sadie, into the household as the children's tutor. From her, Bourgeois learned English, as well as jealousy and hatred.
All of this became part of the Bourgeois legend and the engine of her art. As an emigre French artist who moved to New York in 1938, her career developed slowly. Critical and commercial success only came when she was in her 60s. Although it was not until 1982 that New York's Museum of Modern Art gave her a retrospective – the first it had ever mounted of a woman artist – she was by then already well-known, if regarded as uncategoriseable, marginal, even eccentric. The exhibition transformed her into the grande dame of American art.
In the same year, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe took a number of famous portraits of Bourgeois. She wore a black coat of monkey fur and carried something under her arm as a sort of prop: a big, obscene black latex sculpture, resembling a gigantic penis and balls. She insisted it was not a phallus at all. It was, she said, her little girl. In Mapplethorpe's images, Bourgeois smiles mischievously for the camera. The image is immensely seductive.
Bourgeois made sculptures in all kinds of media; she made wonderful prints and drawings, created claustrophobic installations and fabricated little sewn dolls and giant metal spiders with equal care. She even recorded herself singing childhood songs, broadcast in an empty Venetian tower.
There were many-breasted creatures, beautifully carved marble hands, things that were sexual and strange and filled with secrets and barely suppressed violence. Refusing to describe herself as a feminist, she was one anyway. She has lessons for all artists alive now – inpersistence, commitment and individuality, and in the difference between art made as an adjunct to a career, and art borne out of inner necessity.
Bourgeois made great work and bad work, and didn't care to choose. She even published her insomniac bedside drawings.
"My memories are moth-eaten", she wrote recently, in a crabby hand, next to a beautiful, abstract drawing. We have lost a great artist, but the art goes on.