Thinking Outside a Box

Posted February 27, 2009 at 3:23pm

Let’s hope that not too many visitors or Washington residents have arachnophobia. The giant spider sculpture in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden is no longer alone.

Across the National Mall, the Hirshhorn Museum has introduced a few more eight-legged creatures as part of an exhibit featuring the work of sculptor Louise Bourgeois. The museum’s second-level galleries are filled with more than 120 works from Bourgeois’ 70-year career. Of course, not all of these are spiders.

Bourgeois is one of the leading figures of 20th-century art. Born in Paris in 1911, she moved to New York City in 1938, and the 97-year-old artist has lived there since. Much of her artwork is strongly influenced by her past and her emotional response to various periods of her life.

Many of the themes found in her artwork are universal, such as personal identity, family relationships and the power of art to express deeply felt emotions. “Louise’s art is all about that inner anxiety,” said Valerie Fletcher, senior curator of modern art and Hirshhorn’s organizing curator. For instance, Bourgeois is quoted in the exhibition saying she likes to have work suspended from the ceiling to suggest “states of ambivalence and doubt.” Fletcher added that in Bourgeois’ work, there is an emphasis on the inner self, outer self and the public persona.

Bourgeois is also innovative as a female artist who tackles themes associated with womanhood. While seeking her own independence, Bourgeois illustrates in her work the struggle between motherhood and self-identity. Her drawings called “Femme Maison” — “woman house” — show female bodies with houses or buildings for their heads, or a house with legs extending outward. The wall text explains that Bourgeois “considered the home both an imprisoning space and a secure domain where she could explore ideas about female identity and experience.”

As part of her fascination with motherhood, Bourgeois uses spiders as a mother image. Fletcher explained that while we find the spiders frightening, Bourgeois has said she does not use them in that way. Fletcher pointed out how the spider towering over the cage in “Spider” is not causing harm. In fact, it is simply a mother protecting the eggs hanging from the center. Bourgeois has never fully explained why there are so many spiders in her work, but Fletcher thinks it is because, like Bourgeois’ mother who repaired tapestries, spiders are weavers. One may even notice the ripped tapestries on the cage of “Spider.” “She’s well-known for her spider motifs, but they tend to overshadow the subtleties of her work, so we tried to limit those,” Fletcher said.

While spiders are her trademark, Bourgeois is known for her variety of work, which has been classified as Surrealism, primitivism, psychoanalysis, conceptualism and feminism. The exhibit primarily shows sculptural pieces, along with several of Bourgeois’ paintings and drawings as well.

Some of Bourgeois’ work hits a dark emotional level. “The Destruction of the Father” (1974) depicts a dinner table with plaster meat, symbolizing the torn remains of an overbearing father who was literally destroyed by his children’s resentment. The theme of this work seems to be partly inspired by Bourgeois’ overbearing father who tried to enforce female stereotypes.

While there is a dark emotional side to her work, Bourgeois also has an amusing wit and charm that makes her all the more interesting. This is seen in work such as the “Arch of Hysteria” (1993). The word “hysteria” was coined by men in the 19th century to describe the emotional state of women. Bourgeois’ work, a bronze sculpture of a model in the form of an arch, is cast as a male body. Bourgeois said she did this “because men are hysterical, too.”

The Hirshhorn is the last stop on the exhibit’s five-city world tour. The artist not only wanted it in Washington, but she was drawn to the circular setup of the Hirshhorn. To make the exhibit unique, the Hirshhorn brought in a few of her lesser-known pieces. “Cell (Twelve Oval Mirrors)” (1998), the only interactive piece, is being shown for the first time in the U.S. Like a fun-house mirror, viewers can turn the mirrors to see different reflections.

Overall, what sets this show apart is the chronological order of her work, which few museums have the space to do, Fletcher said.

Bourgeois is still creating work at age 97. In fact, most of Bourgeois’ well-known pieces are actually from the later part of her life.

Not only is it inspiring that Bourgeois remains active and continues to do what she loves, but her artwork leaves impressions on the minds of viewers as well. As Bourgeois says, “I am not what I am, I am what I do with my hands.”

If this spirit isn’t enough to attract visitors, there is also a friendly 9-foot-tall bronze and steel spider waiting to greet visitors outside the Independence Avenue entrance.

The Louise Bourgeois exhibition will be at the Hirshhorn Museum through May 17.