MOSCOW — Should you find yourself among the fountains and fields of Gorky Park, and should you wander into the vicinity of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, and should you be a serious, no-bullshit arachnophobe, look down at your feet and return the way you came. If you’re not, look up at the enormous twisted spider in front of you, a mesh egg sac with 10 marble pills dangling from its cephalothorax. This is Louise Bourgeois’s 30-foot bronze “Maman” (1999). Like so many of her sculptures, “Maman” inspires a jarring combination of revulsion and the intense desire for physical contact. Arachnid forms arouse distrust — they conjure the trickster gods of the Americas or, more pressingly, flies straining against an imminent doom — but in Bourgeois’s case, this melts away. With proximity, the urge to reach out and touch the spider is only magnified. There are no threatening fangs or grasping palps, and the long, gnarled legs imply a movement that would be, if anything, distressingly awkward and gradual. It sags under the weight of its load; I would not have been surprised to see it shudder. So it’s empathy you’re left with as you approach. The chastened Arachne, “unclassicaly classical,” as Holland Carter put it once. A fitting introduction to the powerful exhibition of Bourgeois’s work that Garage, in collaboration with Haus der Kunst in Munich, has put together.
The museum space, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas, was constructed around the decaying frame of Vremena Goda, a Soviet-era restaurant, and opened this summer. In the atrium at its center, just inside the doors, is another massive installation by Bourgeois, the 2007 “Has the Day Invaded the Night or Has the Night Invaded the Day?” It consists of a giant, pivoting vanity mirror, in which the eponymous phrase — and with it the artist’s long and well-documented struggle with insomnia — is reflected. Bourgeois had posed the question before, first in her diary and then in the 1999 letterpress series What is the Shape of this Problem?, where it’s printed below two diverging, disorienting rectangular spirals that give the impression of being caught between parallel mirrors. The effect at Garage is much the same: giant mirror above, parade of camera-phone lenses below.
Koolhaas designed the exhibition spaces explicitly in opposition to the traditional white cube, a point that curator Kate Fowle emphasized on my visit. The industrial character of the museum — a mosaic original to the restaurant dominates one wall of the atrium; in the galleries you’ll find exposed brick, ductwork, chunks of old tile still clinging to the walls — as well as its openness suit the aggressive architecture of Bourgeois’s work. “It’s not like most museum spaces,” Fowle told me over a salad in Garage’s café. “When [Bourgeois’s studio assistant] Jerry Gorovoy first came to do a site visit, he said Louise would have loved this. It’s so much like her studio … it’s one of the reasons I wanted to show this particular series of work.”
The particular series Fowle was referring to, and the focus of the Garage exhibition, is Cells; 25 of them, the largest concentration ever gathered to date, appear here. Installations of sculptures encased variously by salvaged objects — from doors to windows to wire mesh — and custom-made metal cages, they are arranged organically throughout the museum, an approach not chronological, as at the Guggenheim’s 2008 retrospective, but social.
Bourgeois began working on the Cells in the late 1980s, part of a broader shift in the scale of her work after she moved into a studio space in an old factory in Brooklyn (that studio, to which Gorovoy had been referring, was demolished in 2006, the lot now home to a fraction of the Barclays Center). They are some of her most emphatic works, which is saying something. If you look through a window, or lean into the gap where two of the doors that encircle “Red Room (Child)” (1994) are hinged together, you’ll find in the grasping red hands and spools of yarn and spiraling organic sculptures a self at war with its isolation; a grappling with the rebellious, ecstatic flesh encasing it; and a slow-motion wreck of a childhood pirouetting through them both.
The Cells on display at Garage chronicle a recursive series of anxieties, one of the last iterations in the long process of art-as-therapy that characterizes Bourgeois’s work. Their context in the broader world of her vast output is established by the inclusion of many earlier pieces that speak to the same concerns — from the off-puttingly intimate “Destruction of the Father” (1974) to the commanding, hilarious “Fillette” (1968) (famously held under her arm for, then cropped out of, the Robert Mapplethorpe portrait on the catalogue cover for her 1982 MoMA retrospective), to some of her early wood Personage sculptures. These works represent struggles with her father’s adultery and her mother’s response to it; with constrictive, gendered social norms; with the structure of memory; with the inadequacy of duality as an organizing principle. All those ideas recur in the cells, where they play out most vicariously and rewardingly.
Perhaps the most striking among them is located not in the main exhibition space, but in the atrium. “Cell (The Last Climb)” came at the end of the series, 2008, and features a round wire cage pierced by a spiral staircase, taken from the Brooklyn studio when she moved out. The stairs go up through a hole in the top of the wire; the artist, in the form of a blue droplet, is suspended in the middle, as though ascending; and two large wooden balls, her parents, rest on the floor. It seems a vindication of what she wrote in the final panel of What is the Shape of this Problem?: that “Art is a guaranty of sanity.” For all that Louise Bourgeois accomplished — the strides she took for women, the sprawling emotional and intellectual legacy she left behind — the possibility that she found, at last, some measure of peace might be the greatest satisfaction.
Louise Bourgeois. Structures of Existence: The Cells continues at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art (9/32 Krimsky Val St, 119049, Moscow) through February 7, 2016.