Yet art history continues to privilege prodigious output and monumental scale or conception over the selective and the intimate.
In the two sculptures discussed here, Bourgeois and Nevelson prove that they are equal to the task provided by the male-dominated realm of art history. In doing so, they have created two of the more innovative and confrontational works of feminist art of the 20th century.
The spider is a recurring motif in the work of Bourgeois. The spider installed at the National Gallery in Washington is one of many that she has made in her career. Bourgeois uses the spider to represent the figure of the mother - a person she loves dearly, but also has mixed feelings about. Unlike Bourgeois's sculpture, which can be viewed from any angle, Sky Cathedral is more like a painting, in that it is intended to be viewed from the front only.
The Sculptures in Context
Sky Cathedral can readily be seen to fit in with the tradition of Abstract Expressionist painting in America; indeed, it was executed in the 1950s, when Abstract Expressionism as a movement was in full swing. What is unusual, of course, is the fact that it is not a painting at all, but a sculpture. Still, one sees traces of the influence of Jackson Pollock, Joan Mitchell, and other artists who used a large-scale "all over" form of expression in their works. At the same time, one sees traces of the Cubist influence in this sculpture, as well. This is due to the interplay of contrasting lines and shapes throughout the sculpture. There is also a touch of Surrealism in the sculpture, comparable to the boxes of Joseph Cornell.
The work of Bourgeois has traditionally been aligned with the Surrealist movement in France. At the same time, works like Spider show that Bourgeois does not so easily fit in to this category. Having been completed in the late 1990s, long after Surrealism reigned as a major movement, the sculpture is imbued with a sense of timelessness that severs it from all of the major artistic movements of the previous century. The sculpture is monumental in its design and its installation in the Sculpture Garden gives it a heightened significance. It shows Bourgeois's interest in classic psychoanalytic theories of hysteria and phobias - especially how such theories have been deployed over the years as a means of keeping women "in line." The spider is an insect one typically finds in the home. Home has traditionally been the domain of women, as well. As Elaine Showalter has written,
Bourgeois would return to the femme maison throughout her career, exploring women's imprisonment in a "home" that was both a cage and the maternal body. Like American woman writers in the 1940s and 1950s, particularly Carson McCullers and Shirley Jackson, both agoraphobic, the artist was drawing upon the literary genre of the female Gothic, in which a young woman seeks out a secret inner room, which is the source of mysteries, including birth and death. As Anne Sexton wrote in her poem Housewife, the house was the female body, endlessly requiring maintenance, trapping the female artist in her biology.
It is easy for us to make the connection in Spider to this motif, as the spider is stretched out in a way that its legs form a house. We can sit underneath it and feel safe, while looking out through its legs at the outside world.
It is also worthwhile to consider the psychoanalytic aspect of Sky Cathedral, which becomes apparent in Nevelson's use of boxes - traditionally a symbol of the vagina. This use of psychoanalytic symbolism unites the two sculptures as works responding to the intellectual mythologies of the 20th century.
Louise Bourgeois's Spider and Louise Nevelson's Sky Cathedral can readily be seen as hallmarks in feminist art. While both sculptures avoid the didactic strategies typically associated with the feminist art of the 1970s and 1980s, imbedded within each one may discover a message both primal and political about women's role in nature and society.