I once went to a museum with the bravest person I’ve ever met. Why do I think she was so brave? When I met her she was a forensic pathologist working for New York City in the coroner’s office and this was after a stint as a doctor in the Navy. I’d say that’s pretty brave.
By this time she’d moved out of the city and I’d gone to visit her in a bucolic community up the Hudson River. We went to a famous museum but she demurred when it came to going to the Louise Bourgeois exhibit. I remember this clearly because she said, “I’m afraid of the spiders.” Here was a woman that performed autopsies for a living and she was afraid of an artist’s obsession with spiders. I was astonished. I’m scared shitless when it comes to rats and snakes. I get the jitters around roaches. But when it comes to spiders, I have a live and let live policy.
I remembered the incident with my old friend when I went back to see the Louise Bourgeois show at the Museum of Modern Art for a second time. The first visit was too short and too structured. I’d read too many placards and followed the curator’s order of things to see. Not this time.
This second visit was an epiphany and the more I looked—really LOOKED—at her work, the more I saw and the more I saw, the more I began to understand the seductive fear inherent in some of the great artist’s work.
The gigantic spider poised above a cage mesmerized me. The more I looked at it, the more details jumped out at me. The skeleton key hanging on the metal links, the line of enigmatic glass jars, the tapestry fabric on the empty chair, the balls (I thought spider eggs) suspended from the top central point of the “jail cell” like a metallic egg sack, and the colossal—and yet somehow delicate—spider legs.
My head started to spin with story fragments. The jail cell, the lone chair, the fragments of fabric, the austere and yet sumptuous nature of the artwork—it was infused with fear, real fear… But what inspired that fear? The thought of being locked up in the cage, the giant monster looming over the empty chair, the thought of sitting in that chair with an egg sack of baby giant spiders hanging over my head, the fruitless search for the lock that fit the skeleton key??? So much to see, so much to fear, so much to inspire!