Waiting outside the Guggenheim in the “pay what you want” line, the woman behind me made conversation: “Is that spider sculpture hers?” The “her” she was referring to was Louise Bourgeois. My ignorance about the show and artist was evident in my answer: “Those spiders? I see them all over: Montreal, Bilbao, Ottawa, Beacon. They can’t be hers.” This would be the way I was first formally introduced to Louise Bourgeois’s work.
I had been to the Guggenheim only once before when most of the main spiral gallery had been closed. In looking at Bourgeois’ work, it seemed that nothing else would have fit the space better. The retrospect of Bourgeois’ art stretched from floor to ceiling, winding its way from early to later years. It was a perfect way to walk, uninterruptedly, through someone’s life. The width of the ramp made the show intimate and accessible; one could walk around the sculptures and get up close to them. The show became a personal interaction between you and the artist.
On each level, wall text aided visitors, guiding them through each phase of Bourgeois artistic style. One started with her paintings and personages, phased into her phallic forms, walked around the cells of her later life and came out at the end among her soft human-esque sculptures. Somewhere in the middle, I realized that I knew the woman’s work. It finally made sense why at DIA Beacon the spider had been exhibited next to the marble phalluses. Her style of work had changed immensely!
The large changes in Bourgeois’ style could have made it difficult to curate the show, but instead the worked flowed well. Having gone from bottom to top, as one was suppose to if they wanted to see the work in chronological order, I decided to turn around and go back through Bourgeois’ work. I had had my preview, now it was time for a closer look.
Unlike many of the visitors in the sardine style packed spiral, I had opted out of the free audio guide. Though it would have given me a fuller background about the artist and her work, I wanted to experience the art on my own terms. Which pieces did I like? Which did I think were terrible? What sort of questions did I have about the art? One of my immediate questions, left unanswered, was how did the museum know how to arrange Bourgeois’s cells? In walking through the exhibit again I found that the work that I most liked was Bourgeois’ personages. These sculptural totem poles of tumbling wood or spiky sticks were simplistically beautiful and I wanted a garden of them.
Bourgeois’s best known work, of course, were her phallic forms. Her mid-career style must have shocked the art realm. I remember feeling the same ping of surprise when viewing slides of her marble and bronze cast pieces for the first time in my undergraduate freshman art history class. Looking at this work, I imagined Bourgeois as a man-eater. I could not decide whether she fit the shocking, seductress category or the outspoken feminist – in either case, she had a targeted subject matter.
The work most familiar to me, though, was Bourgeois’s spiders and cocoons. I had seen them all over the world and had not known what to make of them. Years ago, in my first encounter, I had walked under the one outside of the Bilbao Guggenheim. Through its webbed abdomen, one could view the large glass eggs the spider carried. In this experience, there were two entwined spiders whose relationship could have been seen as either threatening or embracing. They were placed perfectly within the space, on the main floor within direct view via the outside windows. The cocoons hung from ceiling, large and metal, creating an environment where I felt insignificant to the scale of the insect and arachnid world.
Standing next to Bourgeois’ intimidating spiders, I felt total embarrassment from not connecting them with the artist. Clearly a household name, Louise Bourgeois, should have been one I recognized – everyone else in the Guggenheim had. This was an important show for the newly refaced museum as the retrospective had brought in a crowd. The Guggenheim had met expectations at every step, with film screenings of Bourgeois’s performance work and an excellent presentation of her oeuvre. I could not have imagined the retrospective exhibited in any other space.