Spider Woman

Lauren O'Neill-Butler on a new Louise Bourgeois documentary

Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach, Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress, and the Tangerine, 2008, still from a color film in 16 mm, 99 minutes.

Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress, and the Tangerine (2008) tenderly untangles the personal and public lives of the esteemed artist, and clocks in at just over an hour and a half—as if to offer a minute for each of her ninety-six years. The film is the third and final production by the Art Kaleidoscope Foundation, a nonprofit established in 1990 by Marion Cajori (1950–2006), who began work on this film in 1993 with codirector Amei Wallach and editor Ken Kobland. Its premiere at Film Forum precedes a presentation of Bridgette Cornand’s documentary video trilogy at Anthology Film Archives, and both coincide with Bourgeois’s full-career retrospective at the Guggenheim.

Like Cajori’s previous features about Joan Mitchell and Chuck Close, which provide unusually candid interviews, this atmospheric portrait of Bourgeois bypasses the dryness of most art documentaries. It resembles instead a work of art in its own right, no doubt fueled by the uncanny sight of an artist revisiting her ideas from over forty years ago with vivid clarity. The film’s three sections are titled after Bourgeois’s sculptural installation I Do, I Undo, I Redo, 1999–2000, and explore several of her major themes, including memory, trauma, and identity. Although difficult to encapsulate, the best précis of Bourgeois’s career is offered near the end of the film by Tate Modern curator Frances Morris, who notes, “For me, the first encounters with Louise were really as a historic figure, a classic modern twentieth-century artist. Subsequent encounters with her were as a contemporary artist. . . . She’s the only figure in twentieth-century art that I see in both these contexts. . . . As she’s become physically older and, in a way, more ambitious, her work has become more universal.”

Other interviews with curators, such as Robert Storr and Deborah Wye, offer personal glimpses of their relationships with the artist. Wye emphatically states that she was “totally taken” and “in her power” when she first met Bourgeois; Storr compares Bourgeois to a vampire sucking up psychological energy. (“But most of the time she’s putting energy out,” he concedes.) However, the most scintillating bons mots are offered by the doyenne herself, and there are enough here to fill up a pocket-size inspirational book. These weave through the film as she gleefully describes and lovingly caresses her works, like little children. A few gems: “The purpose of sculpture is really self-knowledge”; “The artist has a privilege of being in touch with his or her unconscious”; and, in response to a question from her longtime assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, “You have to read between the lines when I talk.”

Although Bourgeois’s joie de vivre is infectious and at times downright endearing (as when she rides in a Cadillac or wears a fluffy, hot-pink coat), viewers are reminded how her works have shaped—and have been shaped by—the art world. Never fully embraced by Dada, Surrealist, or Abstract Expressionist circles, she stopped showing her work in the early ’50s, only to gain late-career success in the ’80s, when “Greenberg formalism was on the way out.” As Gorovoy aptly puts it, “My generation was interested in narrative. . . . Louise had been mining that area for a long time.”

Not long after Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” plays on the sound track, the moody and meditative film concludes with a montage depicting an invasion of sorts: Bourgeois’s massive bronze spider sculptures parked in front of art institutions around the world. Bourgeois notes that her spiders have been her most successful subjects and represent her mother, yet the film makes a stronger case that the artist is her own most successful subject and is the “mother” of generations of artists, particularly those working with feminist themes. As two members of the Guerrilla Girls argue, “Whether she likes it or not, she’s our icon.”

Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress, and the Tangerine runs at Film Forum from June 25 to July 7. To view the trailer for this film, click here. Brigitte Cornand's La Rivière Gentille runs at Anthology Film Archives July 8–20.