Because the relationship between past and present is central to the art of Louise Bourgeois, the attic at Dia:Beacon is a telling site for her sculpture. Here, in this quiet, distant-seeming part of the building, with its bare, unrenovated brick walls and penumbral light, the past seems close, its traces more insistent than on the brighter, luminous main floor. Is the past a ghost that haunts the present, exiled yet always at hand? Or is it rather that the present constantly threatens to fall back toward the past, slipping into the shapes of old histories and traumas? This space inhabited by Bourgeois's art poses such questions.
Interconnections among different moments in time infuse Bourgeois's approach to artmaking as well as the objects she generates: over a career of more than sixty years, she has repeatedly returned to particular ideas and motifs, constantly probing, expanding, and refocusing their visual forms and meanings, as seen here in the reworking of the lair as form and motif over a period of years. Such works suggest an intricate relationship between architecture and the human body. "Space does not exist," Bourgeois has said, "it is just a metaphor for the structure of our existence." This idea is already present in her first mature work, made in the 1940s, when she began to explore a concept she called the femme-maison, or "woman-house," a hybrid of body and architecture. In the 1960s, it had bifurcated into two related series, the Soft Landscapes and the Lairs, spaces of charged contradiction—each both haven and prison, refuge and trap. In this sense, too, Bourgeois's work and Dia:Beacon's dark but spacious attic suit each other uncannily.
Bourgeois had early on been fascinated by mathematics, but where Minimal and Conceptual artists of the 1960s—Donald Judd, Robert Smithson, Sol LeWitt, and others—expressed mathematical concerns through stable, rectilinear geometries, Bourgeois focused in these years on topology, the science of mapping, and dealt with fluid, undulating spaces and surfaces. Topology gave Bourgeois a model for spaces somewhere between designed structure and organic amorphousness. At once objects and enclosures these sculptures evoke human shelters and those made by other creatures—cocoons, carapaces, shell-like vessels—at the same time that they are rife with allusions to the body. The womb, after all, is a living space in the most literal sense.
In several interrelated works, including Clutching (1962), Bourgeois translates this blend of sexuality and habitation into bodily forms that apparently exist before or beyond differentiation by gender yet simultaneously seem driven by desire. Another strain of works suggesting flayed bodies or body parts—La Patte (1965), for example—is counterpointed by phalluslike objects inflated with a sardonic transgressive wit, as seen in Untitled (Sleep II) (1968). In the four Januses, phallic symbols have become benign; stereotypical images of potency playfully upstaged through suspension and mirroring.
A recent monumental sculpture, Crouching Spider (2003), assumes a more ambiguous content. A frequent subject in her more recent work, the spider is a weaver: tellingly, as a child, Bourgeois worked with woven fabrics, helping her parents in the family business of tapestry repair. But here as before, biographical reference is subsumed by older, darker layers of the mind that seem to have been brought into play here. At once the archetypal female protector and a nightmarish predator, Bourgeois's enormous arachnid hovers, poised, but whether to strike or flee remains unclear. Ultimately, neither sanctum nor prison, these galleries conjure a world governed by a mind as subject to mordant fantasy as to desire.