Within Louise Bourgeois’s overall investigation of abstract motifs, the spiral holds a distinct place, recurring across her oeuvre. It is found in segmented wood sculptures of the early 1950s that twist and turn, in a plaster mound from the 1960s that suggests a tomb monument, and in a bronze figure of the 1980s that struggles inside a cocoon and hangs precariously from the ceiling by a string. Numerous drawings and prints add to this evocative repertoire. In the 1990s, Bourgeois even created a performance piece, She Lost It, in which she wrapped and unwrapped her performers in a spiraling gauze banner, nearly 200 feet long, printed with one of her parables.
To describe the symbolic resonance spirals held for her, Bourgeois harked back to her childhood, when she watched the workers in her family’s tapestry restoration business wash tapestries in the river and then fiercely wring them out. She segued easily from this recollection to the fantasy of wringing the neck of someone she despised. But in fact, the spiral functioned as a visual metaphor for a range of her emotions, not just anger.
Bourgeois stressed the spiral’s two opposing directions: inward and outward. The outward movement represented “giving, and giving up control, trust and positive energy….” While the winding in of the spiral embodied “a tightening, a retreating, a compacting to the point of disappearance.” She said, “You can get twisted and strangled by your emotions.” Always reflecting her volatile temperament, Bourgeois’s spirals are endlessly variable—as coils of tension, protective cocoons, and even entrapping spider webs.