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Louise Bourgeois's cast-bronze 'Spider' from 1996, is the centerpiece of the ICA's new 'Bourgeois in Boston' exhibit
Louise Bourgeois's cast-bronze "Spider" from 1996, is the centerpiece of the ICA's new "Bourgeois in Boston" exhibit. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)

Bourgeois for beginners

The ICA offers a welcome glimpse at the pioneering sculptor. But the museum should have tried for a broader look.

A hideous, giant black spider lurks in a room of its own at the Institute of Contemporary Art. With its compact, gnarly body elevated more than 10 feet high on spindly legs, it's like an escapee from a 1950s horror movie.

Made in 1996 by Louise Bourgeois , the wonderful cast-bronze "Spider" is the most arresting piece in "Bourgeois in Boston," a small exhibition of works dating from the late '40s to 1999 by the revered nonagenarian sculptor. Including 10 sculptures, a painting on canvas, and a rotating selection of prints and drawings, the show will serve as an engaging -- albeit abbreviated -- introduction for visitors unacquainted with Bourgeois's viscerally sensuous, psychologically charged art.

Informed contemporary art followers, however, will not discover any fresh perspectives on Bourgeois's work. As its title intimates and an introductory wall text makes clear, the exhibition's purpose is, in large part, to showcase pieces from Boston art collections and one collection in particular: that of Barbara Lee , a trustee and major benefactor of the ICA. Lee has lent eight sculptures, and she will also contribute a set of eight drawings that will be on view from May 22 to Aug. 26. Significant works from two other collections owned by ICA supporters -- those of Sandra and Gerald Fineberg and Marlene and David Persky -- are also included.

The event is, in other words, a thank-you gift from the ICA to some of its most important patrons, one that both honors them and enhances the value of their collections. In this regard, it raises concerns about how the ICA is pursuing its mission.

Organized by ICA assistant curator Emily Moore Brouillet , the show is nicely installed in gray-walled galleries. Besides the gargantuan spider, exemplary pieces from several phases of Bourgeois's career indicate how resourcefully and daringly she has explored relations between abstraction and surrealism.

An elegant white sculpture from the late '40s is like a cross between a tribal totem and Brancusi's poetic minimalism. Also from this period is a haunting, brusquely made painting on canvas depicting a big room with a circus wagon in the center and a scary, spectral presence hovering above a spiral balustrade to the left. Bourgeois titled it "1932" -- the year of her mother's death.

Works from the '60s show Bourgeois's turn toward more traditional sculptural techniques and erotically provocative imagery. Dangling from a wire, a well-known Freudian nightmare of a bronze called "Janus Fleuri" resembles two severed breasts or oversized penises glued back-to-back. "Germinal," which is delicately carved from white marble, has smooth forms like teats protruding from a tilted bowl shape.

The range of Bourgeois's formal and metaphorical imagination opens wide in works from the '90s. The bronze, reptilian foot of a mythic creature with golden talons is beautiful, magical, and ferocious. The doll-size figure of a man -- made of stuffed, crudely stitched fabric -- standing on a wooden leg and supporting himself on a metal crutch projects a sense of masculine vulnerability.

Most elaborate and theatrically poignant of all is "Cell (Hands and Mirror)" from 1995. Within a chest-high enclosure made of hinged-together, beat-up metal doors, a pair of realistic hands expertly carved from a rough block of marble enact a kind of primal sex scene -- one fist jams into the other hand's palm -- before mirrors built into the chamber's inner walls. It suggests a traumatic memory dredged up by psychoanalysis.

Nine prints and drawings on view -- eight from Harvard's Fogg Art Museum and one from the Worcester Art Museum -- add little to the show. Sketchy, fragmentary, and symbolically obscure, they are too random and too few to afford much additional insight into Bourgeois's art.

Despite its memorable individual works, "Bourgeois in Boston" does not represent the kind of innovative, conceptually exciting curating one hopes for from the new ICA. A loose, retrospective grab-bag of a show, it offers no surprising ways to see and think about a familiar, well-established artist, as a thematically focused exhibition might have done.

Last winter the Worcester Art Museum had an excellent show concentrating on Bourgeois's use of fabric in works since the '90s. One could imagine other small but revelatory exhibitions highlighting other aspects of Bourgeois's extraordinarily long and protean career. Shows could focus, for example, on her use of certain forms such as the spiral; on particular materials such as wood, bronze, or marble; or on specific subjects such as animals or the female figure.

This show looks too much like an effort to please the museum's most valuable supporters. With the ICA's expansion, the museum may be trying to cultivate donors who could be a continued source of funding. We've come to expect if not appreciate the Museum of Fine Arts' frequent cozying up to private collectors to the detriment of its intellectual mission. It's sad to see the ICA already going down that road.

Ken Johnson can be reached at


Bourgeois in Boston

At: the Institute of Contemporary Art, through March 2 . 617-478-3100,