"The Spider is an ode to my mother.
She was a tapestry woman.
My mother was my best friend.
She was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty,
subtle, indispensable, neat, and useful as a Spider."
--Louise Bourgeois, 1996
Louise Bourgeois' iconic Spider III is one of the most significant and personal works from an artist whose career reflects nearly a century of remarkable productivity. This rare steel example of her iconic motif was acquired directly from the artist in 1995 and has remained in the same private collection since that time. A unique sculpture in a singular material, Bourgeois chose steel for the first realization of each new version of one of her Spiders. They were produced before the bronze editions and were designed either for the artist herself or for acquisition by museums or close personal friends. Among the most charged and complex images of her long and varied career, the subject of the spider first appeared in Bourgeois' work as early as 1947, but dominated her output from the mid-1990s. As a result of the paradoxical nature of the creature itself, and also reflecting Bourgeois' own turbulent relationships with those close to her, the spider's rich symbolic associations along with its deeply personal meaning for the artist have resulted in a powerful body of work whose legacy continues today.
Spanning three feet, and supported by its eight legs, Bourgeois' Spider III is one of the earliest versions of a motif the artist would revisit for the next decade and whose various manifestations have graced some of the most significant museums around the world. The present work represents the unique steel version, from which the subsequent Spider III bronze edition of six was produced the following year. From Tate Modern in London to the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., Bourgeois' arachnid forms have found appreciation among critics and public alike. With its combination of irregular, hand-worked surfaces and smooth, highly finished elements, the spider form is a complex mix of menace and emotion.
The human scale of this particular Spider increases the sense of preternatural unease engendered by her larger Spiders, including the monumental version, Mammon (1999). The arched form of three of its legs suggests the creature is bracing itself for a menacing burst of activity, either to flee an approaching threat or poised to attack a creature who dares to wander into its lair. The psychophysical response derived from the inherent tensions of the subject matter and its material formulation is uncanny. The tactile nature of the surface, transitioning seamlessly between the smooth, attenuated areas of the vertical elements and the mottled knots of welded areas at the joints, bends, and core, provocatively beckons. Yet the popular cultural fear of the spider reinforced in films such Arachnophobia (1990) sets up a duality inherent in a work structured on contradictions: it is both repellent as a cultural memory and attractive as a glistening material presence.
Intrinsically autobiographical, Spider III also relates to Bourgeois' early childhood and the difficult relationship she had with her family. Bourgeois has widely acknowledged that the spider motif is an ode to her mother, a woman who repaired tapestries in her father's textile restoration workshop in Paris. Bourgeois adored her mother and when she died in 1932, Bourgeois attempted suicide by throwing herself into a river, only to be rescued by her father. Despite this attempt to save his daughter, Bourgeois' relationship with her father was a difficult one. Louis Bourgeois was a philanderer whom Louise both admired and detested. Entangled in his own web of infidelity and deception, her father could not extricate himself from his 10-year affair with the artist's Governess that continued throughout much of her childhood. The spider, the spinner of webs, with its dual role of predator and protector, becomes the perfect foil for Bourgeois' emotionally challenged childhood.
Spider III can also be seen as a personification of the artist herself. As the art historian Robert Storr wrote of Bourgeois, "She produces by secreting. Ceaselessly, she spins the space of her life and work, increasingly inventing and redefining it. Her own extended body determines the space of her web. It incorporates the wiles of the hunter; it is host to elementary needs - for the spider, mystery and secretion are intimately allied" (R. Storr, Louise Bourgeois: Emotions Abstracted, Werke/Work 1941-2000, Zurich, 2004, n.p.). Like much of Bourgeois' most powerful work, Spider III continues her role as an avant-garde artist who first started to demonstrate incomparable abilities during the immediate post-war period. By choosing the symbolically important image of the spider, with its references to the Greek legend of Arachne and its associations with female envy and jealousy, Bourgeois' choice of subject brings with it a range of subjective connotations that combine to form a fascinating melange of meaning. In addition to these associations, the fact that Bourgeois chose the traditionally male-dominated domain of sculpture in which to execute this piece intensifies the political nature of this work. By choosing a masculine medium such as sculpture in which to explore the nature of femininity, the artist added a significantly resonant dimension to her already diverse oeuvre.
Louise Bourgeois' reputation as an artist grew steadily during the later decades of her life. Having been overshadowed for many years by first-generation Abstract Expressionists, her importance as an artist came to be recognized in the 1980s with a series of one-person exhibitions in New York. In 1982, she was the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and had her first exhibitions in London and Paris. By the time she represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1993, her reputation as an influential and innovative artist was firmly established. Despite a varied body of work, her spider sculptures remain central to her artistic output. Intensely personal, yet elaborating universal themes, this work is a powerful metaphor for Bourgeois' life: a duplicitous father, a protective mother, and the artist, who variously reenacted her psychic torment in material form. This web of resistance also stands as a universal metaphor for life-a silken thread spun from one's own body and connected from a central core to form a network that is as strong as it is fragile, permeable, and transparent. If a single image could represent Bourgeois' sustained and prolific output, it would be the spider which represents the pinnacle of a seventy year career and yet continues to challenge and influence a new generation of artists around the world.
PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTOR
Sculptures, Statues & Figures
Munich, Barbara Gross Galerie, Bodyscape, March-April 1996 (bronze example exhibited).
Brussels, Xavier Hufkens, Louise Bourgeois, December 1996-Feburary 1997 (bronze example exhibited).
Cincinnati, Contemporary Arts Center, Louise Bourgeois: Ode à ma Mère, April-June 1997 (bronze example exhibited).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
19 x 35 x 37½ in. (48.3 x 88.9 x 95.3 cm.)
Louise Bourgeois, exh. cat., London, Tate Modern, 2000, pp. 62-63 (bronze example illustrated in color).
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner, 1995