“Untitled” by Louise Bourgeois (1996)
“Untitled” by Louise Bourgeois (1996)

Louise Bourgeois sometimes disappears behind her work. She is known best for her spindly spider sculptures, long-legged daddies that thrive in sculpture gardens. One such spider stalks the fountain at the National Gallery of Art. She has earned icon status, and fairly recently, for artworks that perform both as reliable commodities in fine art auctions and witchy totems in feminist pop culture.

Bourgeois’ iconic turn can obscure the alarming proposition behind her work. The artist tended a fire that burned white hot at a time when the post-war art world was cooling, the radiance of the Abstract Expressionist era gradually dissipating and giving way to crystal-cool Minimalism. Bourgeois made work to the side of all that. While her spiders found their place in the post-war contemporary ecosystem, Bourgeois’ larger body still stands apart as emotive and pure.

Louise Bourgeois: To Unravel a Torment, a show of the artist’s drawing, painting, installation, and even textiles now on view at Glenstone, shines a light on nearly half a century of artistic production. There are a couple of spiders on view: a 1947 drawing from a book of engravings and a frightful installation from 2003. The show also features two of Bourgeois’ “Cell” installations, which have inspired their own surveys. Where the exhibit excels is in showing how Bourgeois sustained such an intense investigation across so many media forms for so long—an inferno that still burns righteously.

Curated by Emily Wei Rales, who is the director and co-founder of Glenstone, a collector-owned museum, To Unravel a Torment proceeds chronologically. After the early elongated Surrealist figures of the late ’40s and early ’50s, Bourgeois began to explore the themes she would turn to over and over again. “Noir Veine” (1968), a marble sculpture of a bouquet of embryonic polyps, features the bulbous abscesses that she more often poured in latex or plaster. (She usually gave these forms one title, “Avenza.”) Erotic ideas that surfaced in her earliest drawings swell to a crescendo in “Fillette (Sweeter Version)” (1968–99), a rubber sculpture of a pair of testicles with a shaft that ends in a clitoral hood. Bourgeois had a dirty mind: Sex is a constant source of sweet revulsion in her work.

Family is another magnetic pole. The showstopper in this survey is “The Destruction of the Father” (1974), a pivotal installation that reconciled her interest in form with her experiments in theatricality. The piece is arranged like a stage, with a fourth wall open to the viewer; it is lit with red bulbs that bathe her embryonic avenza in magma-colored light. Pieces the shape of butchered sheep leg quarters cover a table. Bourgeois never disguised her lifelong rage at her controlling father, although there’s another (possibly apocryphal) story behind this one: One evening, she surprised her children by preparing a rare home-cooked meal, in this case a hearty French provincial dinner. They were so stunned to find her actually cooking they offender her, and in her fury, she dumped all the lamb out the window to the pavement below.

The smoldering anger in Bourgeois’ heart reaches its sulfurous pitch in “Lady in Waiting” (2003), a late sculpture that deserves a warning label. The piece is a phonebooth-sized installation, another stage of sorts, with a window frame that faces the viewer; through the glass can be seen a vintage upholstered chair. A minor horror makes its nest there: a featureless doll with eight mechanical spider legs. Thread joins the doll’s mouth to points of articulation in its legs. Bourgeois’s installations, more dramatic than sculptural, aim to confront the viewer, and it’s difficult at times to be confronted so aggressively.

Bourgeois’ installations are the anti-spectacle: She invites the audience in to see the bedrock of her soul, and viewers will find no passive delight in looking. “Cell (Choisy)” (1990–93) features a marble reproduction of the tapestry workshop in Choisy-le-Roi, outside Paris, that was also her childhood home; it is enclosed in a steel cage whose door is a guillotine. No less subtle are “Cell I” and “Cell III” (both 1991): the former a studio-like space with a mysterious leg-form sculpture, the latter another studio with a steel-spring bed over which she has draped earnest quotes in fabric (“Pain is the ransom of formalism”).

If Bourgeois felt trapped by life, she also sometimes found its escapes. “Ode à la Bièvre” (2002), an unbound book rendered in cloth, is so pure in its peaceful austerity that it’s searing; the pages are fabric landscapes of scenes along the Bièvre near Antony, where she once lived. Each landscape page could fly as a flag. It’s a piece that a viewer might want to inhabit. But danger and dismay are never far off in Bourgeois’ work, as in “Untitled” (1996), a sculpture of dirty linen blouses and nighties hanging off giant bones—the literal skeletons in her closet.

The uncertainty of Bourgeois’ lifelong existential investigation into daughterhood and womanhood shows in this modest survey. Sometimes that’s not so apparent in her spider sculptures, which are so finely balanced, a taut metaphor for the delicate and beautiful yet fearless and predatory nature of motherhood.

As the spiders arrived late in the artist’s life—in the ’90s, when the artist was in her 80s—and quickly captured both the art world and the art market, they can seem like the culmination of a life’s triumphant work. But that balance was hard fought and rare. “I Give Everything Away” (2010), a set of mixed-media drawings produced by the artist in the year of her death, gives a sense of the fear and trembling that Bourgeois examined without trepidation—and without resolution. There’s another balance point with Bourgeois’ art: It’s hard to look, and it’s hard to turn away.

At Glenstone through January 2020. 12002 Glen Rd, Potomac, Md. Free. (301) 983-5001. glenstone.org.