My childhood has never lost its magic,’ the artist stated, ‘it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama. All my work of the last fifty years, all my subjects, have found their inspiration in my childhood.’”
“My best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and useful as a spider.”
“With the Spider, I try to put across the power and the personality of a modest animal. Modest as it is, it is very definite and it is indestructible. It is not about the animal itself, but my relation to it. It establishes the fact that the spider is my mother, believe it or not... At some times of the day, the spider is at her best, raring to go and kind of aggressive. She relates to a whole house and she has tentacles that are quite real...I connect her to my mother because the spider is a cornered animal, she finds security in the corner. But she, in fact, is not cornered, but she tries to corner the others. Everything is balanced.”
Perhaps no other artist has woven such a continuous thread through the history of 20th century art as Louise Bourgeois. Spider II is a prime example of her now-iconic arachnid sculptures, and speaks to the artist’s great faculty for exploring issues of memory, the body, and family in her highly autobiographical oeuvre. Returning to the spider motif in the mid-1990s to striking effect, Bourgeois revisited the subject of her early ink and charcoal drawings, linking multiple points in her career to a larger conversation. Often speaking of her connections between the spider and her own mother, this important work deals with ideas central to Bourgeois’s practice and is a standout amidst her decades-long output.
Clinging to the wall like its real-world counterpart, Spider II is a twisting structure of cast bronze. From its body extend eight sinuous legs that splay outward in all directions. With a light cast upon the rippling strands of metal, it is almost as if the arachnid has been frozen for a brief moment as it considers its surroundings before scurrying along back to its web. Smaller than some of its counterparts, Spider II is one of the most lithe and unhindered works in Bourgeois’s exploration of the arachnoid form. Where Spider and Maman are each portrayed with bulging egg sacs, Spider II is streamlined and active. This fact is made all the more apparent by its placement on the wall rather than laboring on the floor. With a size nearly equal to its human observers, Spider II has a direct connection to the viewer. This uncanny equality speaks to the artist’s interest throughout her career in evoking the figure, or some semblance thereof. In her early Personages (1945-1955), vertical constructions of stone or wood installed in small groups, Bourgeois made a very distinct connection to people from her past. This reliance on figural association and biomorphic relationships continues into her later works that, like Spider II, are recognizable as the artist’s attempts to illustrate and navigate her own memories and subconscious. This particular sculpture is part of a small edition that Bourgeois executed in 1995. One of these bronzes is included in the current sweeping retrospective of Bourgeois’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Titled Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, the show has been organized by emerita curator Deborah Wye and takes a close look at the artist’s place within the history of art. The third major exhibition of the artist’s work mounted by the Museum of Modern Art, it is preceded by a survey of prints in 1994 and the artist’s breakthrough retrospective in 1982 that brought Bourgeois to international attention (and was the museum’s first major exhibition devoted to a female artist).
Born in Paris in 1911, Bourgeois’s life spanned nearly the entirety of the tumultuous 20th century. Living through both world wars, she grew up during a constantly shifting socio-political atmosphere from which new artistic innovations were born at an astounding rate. Beginning her artistic career in the early 1930s, she came into contact with Surrealists like André Breton and was inspired to explore the subconscious through her practice. Moving to the United States after her marriage to art historian Robert Goldwater, she landed in New York in 1938 where she began studying painting at the Art Students League and exhibiting with artists like Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, and Jackson Pollock. In the 1940s, Bourgeois set aside painting to focus on sculpture. “I could not be a painter,” Bourgeois said, “The two-dimensions do not satisfy me. I have to find the reality given by the third dimension” (L. Bourgeois quoted in A. Potts, “Hybrid Sculpture,” in Louise Bourgeois, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2007, p. 258). Her Personages borrowed from the ideas of the Surrealists (especially the totemic figures of Max Ernst), and also served as surrogates for the family she had left behind in Europe. As the years progressed, these wooden pillars evolved into organic forms that, like Bourgeois’s contemporary Eva Hesse, made use of atypical materials like latex and fabric. Lucy Lippard, the preeminent critic and curator, included some of Bourgeois’s works in a 1966 exhibition titled ‘Eccentric Abstraction’, and helped place the artist’s pieces in conversation with the nascent Minimalist ideas and the already pervasive Abstract Expressionist movement. Furthermore, by situating Bourgeois’s practice as important, timely, and something beyond the maledominated art realm, Lippard inspired younger feminist curators and artists to take up the French artist’s mantle and to expand upon her ideals.
Like many of Bourgeois’s works, Spider II has autobiographical leanings. Although not strictly connected to perceivable events, this sculptural form has roots in her childhood. Her parents ran a tapestry restoration studio, and from an early age she was exposed to the comings and goings of this textile workshop. In many ways, Bourgeois has equated her mother, Joséphine, to the threadproducing form of the spider. She notes, “My best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and useful as a spider” (L. Bourgeois,”Ode à ma mère”, in Louise Bourgeois, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2000, p. 62). More apparent in the title of her other arachnid constructions like the colossal Maman, this corollary between the artist’s maternal figure and the form of the spider is clear. Thinking about the Ancient Greek myth of Arachne, we can read into the artist’s past. Arachne was a mortal weaver with unrivaled talent. So great was her skill and confidence that she challenged the goddess Minerva to a competition. She inevitably lost, and for her hubris Arachne was transformed into a spider. Bourgeois’s mother is related to the form of the spider as a weaver and home builder, but the artist’s father (who kept a mistress for years) more closely relates to the brash arrogance of the ill-fated Arachne. Bourgeois can be seen as an amalgam of both as she carefully crafted her story while boldly pushing into the male-dominated realm of abstract sculpture.
In 1995, the same year that Bourgeois produced Spider II, the artist also published a poem titled Ode à ma mère (“Ode to my mother”) that was accompanied by a collection of nine etchings. These etchings, each depicting a spider, portray the arachnid in a maternal light. This connection between the artist’s mother (and mothers in general) and the eight-legged creature might seem odd to initial observation, but Bourgeois ties together points of elucidation with her poetic meanderings. Speaking about her mother’s participation in a crippled marriage, Bourgeois writes, “Caught in a web of fear: the spider’s web. The deprived woman.” The spider takes on antagonistic elements that bind her mother and make her suffer. But then, she also intones, “I shall never tire of representing her. I want to: eat, sleep, argue, hurt, destroy… Why do you? My reasons being exclusively to me. The treatment of Fear” (L. Bourgeois,”Ode à ma mère”, in Louise Bourgeois, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2000, p. 62). By creating this dark presence that the artist inextricably links to the comforting memories of her mother, Bourgeois was able to more fully digest and examine painful moments from her childhood. Placing her fears into the guise of a weaving spider so similar in her mind to the figure of her mother, the artist creates a powerful duality that imbues each arachnoid drawing, print, and sculpture with a rich tapestry of nostalgic allusions.
Much of Bourgeois’s work stems from her own memories, and by mining this rich history she is able to come to terms with her past. “My childhood has never lost its magic,” the artist stated, “it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama. All my work of the last fifty years, all my subjects, have found their inspiration in my childhood” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in L. Neri, “The Personal Effects of a Woman with No Secrets,” in Louise Bourgeois oeuvres récentes/Recent Works, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 1998, p. 81). Working in her parents’ restoration studio as a child, the artist lived with the knowledge that her father was constantly having relations outside of his marriage. Seeing her mother deal with this predicament made a lasting impression on Bourgeois, and this acknowledgement of both strength and sadness comes through in her work. The spider is delicate and fragile; its web is strong but easily torn. On the other hand, the Black Widow is ferocious and kills its mate. Bourgeois relates these opposing sides of the animal to her mother and to herself. “With the Spider, I try to put across the power and the personality of a modest animal. Modest as it is, it is very definite and it is indestructible. It is not about the animal itself, but my relation to it. It establishes the fact that the spider is my mother, believe it or not... At sometimes of the day, the spider is at her best, raring to go and kind of aggressive. She relates to a whole house and she has tentacles that are quite real...I connect her to my mother because the spider is a cornered animal, she finds security in the corner. But she, in fact, is not cornered, but she tries to corner the others. Everything is balanced” (L. Bourgeois interview with M. Cajori and A. Wallach, quoted in J. Gorovoy and P. Tabatabai Asbaghi, op. cit., p. 254). This powerful dichotomy charges Spider II with an almost sinister force that is quickly tempered by maternal sweetness.
Though working well before the Feminist Art movement of the 1970s, Bourgeois can be seen as a definite precursor to many of the artists who champion the ideals set forth by that group. Stepping into the maledominated realm of sculpture early in her career, Bourgeois subverted the cold metal and stone of her contemporaries by using soft, malleable materials that more closely mimicked the organic forms of bodies and flesh. Vacillating between representation and abstract forms, Bourgeois’s works carefully tread between the established movements and styles to evoke values critical to her practice. “It is not an image I am seeking,” the artist once stated, “It’s not an idea. It is an emotion you want to recreate, an emotion of wanting, of giving, and of destroying” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in C. Meyer-Thoss, “Self-Expression Is Sacred and Fatal: Statements,” Louise Bourgeois: Designing for Free Fall, exh. cat., Zurich, 1992, p. 194). With her focus on autobiography, memory, and bodily forms, she was able to build on the ideas of the Surrealists and distance herself from the action and machismo of the Abstract Expressionists. Never one to follow, Bourgeois blazed ahead of her sculptural peers by working in new materials and melding genres into a signature style all her own. “She produces by secreting,” art historian Eva Keller wrote of the artist, “Ceaselessly, she spins the space of her life and her work, incessantly inventing and redefining it” (E. Keller, “Unraveling Louise Bourgeois: An Attempt,” in Louise Bourgeois: Emotions Abstracted, Werke/Works 1941–2000, Zurich, 2004, p. 27). The image of the spider is connected forever with Bourgeois’s practice because of her dynamic treatment of its simple form and its place in the tapestry of her memories. Informing countless artists over her lengthy career, she continues to be one of the most groundbreaking artists of the twentieth century. Working until just shy of her centennial, Bourgeois’s web of influence and innovation is complex, far-reaching, and timeless.