Although recognized for exploring a broad array of materials and motifs, Louise Bourgeois is perhaps best known for sculptures of spiders, ranging in size from a brooch of four inches to monumental outdoor pieces that rise to 30 feet. Long a motif in Symbolist art, the spider encompassed several meanings for Bourgeois, who cited it most frequently as a stand-in for her mother, a tapestry restorer by trade who impressed Bourgeois with her steadfast reliability and clever inventiveness. Yet Bourgeois also appreciated the spider in more general terms, as a protector against evil, pointing out that this crafty arachnid is known for devouring mosquitoes and thereby preventing disease.
Bourgeois’s preoccupation with the spider spans her career, with examples appearing in her drawing and printmaking as early as the late 1940s, but the subject began to have a particular immediacy for her in the mid-1990s. Among the defining projects of that time is Ode à ma mère, a 1995 illustrated book comprised of drypoint spiders, along with a text evoking the complicated interpretations Bourgeois framed for them. Bourgeois continued to explore this theme in sculpture, drawing, and printmaking until late in her life. In 2007, she crafted a woven fabric example and also issued a series of digital prints incorporating spiders. That late series, entitled The Fragile, presents her subject in a variety of guises, often merging with a female figure and evoking the aging artist herself.