L ouise Bourgeois often described her intensely psychological body of work as a catharsis for childhood memories, trauma and female desire. Bourgeois's Spider IV and Needle Woman – two remarkable sculptures conceived nearly 50 years apart – will come to auction in the 16 November Contemporary Art Evening sale at Sotheby’s New York. Together, these sculptures underscore the enduring themes within the artist’s oeuvre.
First depicted in a small drawing from 1947, the spider is perhaps the most compelling image in Bourgeois’s unique visual lexicon. The artist characterised the spider as a maternal figure at once clever, protective and threatening. With its ability to weave webs that are delicate but also constructed to ensnare prey, the spider embodies inherent tensions that underlie the artist’s oeuvre – fragility and strength, reparation and destruction.
THE ARTIST PICTURED WITH SPIDER IV, 1996.
PHOTO: PETER BELLAMY. ART © 2017 THE EASTON FOUNDATION / LICENSED BY VAGA
At once poignant, powerful, menacing and nostalgic, Spider IV assumes full command of its surroundings. Measuring over six feet, the spider is impressively life-like for its exaggerated scale. Its body seems to swell with a palpable energy that belies its cast-iron material, and one bent leg gracefully extends in a gesture of paused motion and contemplation. Conceived in 1996 and cast the following year, this affecting sculpture appears in Peter Bellamy’s defining photograph of Bourgeois, in which the artist lovingly wraps her arms around the spider’s two wiry hind legs.
More abstract but similarly replete with melancholic poignancy and visceral provocation is Needle Woman. The lithe sculpture resembles a sewing needle, a simple shape that undoubtedly conjured intimate memories of Bourgeois's childhood and her mother, who was seamstress for the family's tapestry business. The artist understood her mother as both a powerful and tragic figure who was her protector and caretaker, but also a woman subjected to Bourgeois’s father’s repeated infidelity.
Needle Woman is from Bourgeois’s Personages series. Conceived in the late 1940s, this series of totemic, human-scaled figures were created as surrogates for the family members Bourgeois left behind in France during the Second World War, after emigrating to the United States in 1938. Serving as both physical and psychic support for the artist as she reached artistic maturity in New York, the Personages were also her first foray into sculpture, and remained central to Bourgeois both personally and professionally – she kept a selection of the Personages, including Needle Woman, in her personal collection for the most of her adult life.
Throughout her career, the artist consistently explored these subjects and forms, returning often to the spider, needle and female figure, in various mediums, including prints and drawings, which are the focus of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, an exhibition on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through 28 January 2018.