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October 18. 2012 10:22AM

Spider sculpture draws reactions outside of Hanover visual arts center


One-year-old Cedar Knight of Hanover runs around and under Louise Bourgeois' sculpture 'Crouching Spider,' which was installed outside the new Black Family Visual Arts Center at Dartmouth College in Hanover in September. (PHOTO BY MEGHAN PIERCE)

A powerful and impressive work of public art is turning heads at Dartmouth College in Hanover this fall.

“Crouching Spider,” by Frenchborn American artist Louise Bourgeois, was installed recently in the Maffei Arts Plaza in front of the new Black Family Visual Arts Center.

The arachnoid form — an immense sculpture in bronze, silver nitrate, polished patina and stainless steel that is 106 and a half inches tall and 329 inches wide — is on a year-long loan to Dartmouth by the Estate of Louise Bourgeois.

“I actually consider this work the most successful piece of public art in the last 25 years,” said Michael Taylor, director of the Hood Museum of Art on campus and chair of the Public Art Committee at Dartmouth. “I really think it is something that will stand the test of time. (It's) just a very exciting work.

“People see it from the street,” he said. “They come across it in different ways. We have been amazed at the throngs of people that have passed it by, and that will only continue. ... I can't wait to see this spider (when it will) have snow on it. It will be amazing.”

THE SCULPTOR

Bourgeois, who was born in 1911 and died in 2010, created intensely autobiographical sculptures, he said. Bourgeois' introduction to art was through her mother, Josephine, whom she helped to dye fabrics and restore medieval tapestries in the family's textile restoration business in Paris.

Taylor said Bourgeois' father would frequent flea markets throughout France and purchase tapestries and carpets. After bringing them home, Bourgeois' mother would retore them, first cleaning them and then patching or replacing missing pieces.

In her own words Bourgeois once said, “Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread disease and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”

Her mother, who died when Louise was 21, was a protector of sorts for Bourgeois, supporting her decision to become an artist when her father was strongly against it, Taylor said.

“If you know nothing about that story you see it as a spider and it's a fascinating visual form,” he said. “But if you know the story you realize that she associates spiders with artists.”

In securing the piece for the 2012/2013 academic year, which the college has dubbed the Year of the Arts at Dartmouth, Taylor said he hopes to send a strong message to Dartmouth students, especially those who attending classes inside the Black Family Visual Arts Center.

“You can live your dreams and you can fight for something that you believe in and devote yourself to this life of creativity that's something very powerful. For me to put that out in front of the visual arts center was a big statement,” Taylor said.

A Bit Intimidating?

Still, walking past the looming spider can be a bit intimidating for some. Delainey Ackerman, a Dartmouth student who studies animation in the visual arts center, said she would rather not have to walk past the sculpture to get to class. “It reminds me of the spider from 'Lord of the Rings',” she said. But, she joked, “As long as it doesn't start moving I'm okay.”

Ackerman, though, said she does admire the art.

“I just think it's really neat the way it stands on really thin spindly legs with nothing else holding it up,” she said.

Taylor said the piece is a feat of mechanical engineering.

“Because the body is solid ... (it) weighs a ton. But the weight is evenly distributed and goes down to these fine points. So it's actually perfectly balanced, perfectly suspended. And it spreads the weight evenly over the legs.

“And of course spiders are like that, too,” he said. “They have an amazing sense of gravity. She really looked closely at spiders and their anatomy in order to make this.”

Taylor suggests people walk around the sculpture slowly to see how the form changes from different angles.

“In the few weeks that it's been on view what I see are students drawing it, sketching it, because it's such an exciting visual form and it's so convoluted. It's got movement,” Taylor said. “I've also seen people walking around it saying 'What, what's that?' There's a wonderful 'aha' moment. But you don't have to know anything about Louise Bourgeois and her history to know that it's just a great sculpture.”

This is true of Marina Knight of Hanover and her one-year-old son Cedar.

“I really love how tensile it looks and light, even though it is a heavy structure,” Knight said. “It's fun to see people interact with it.” Her son just loves the sculpture and whether they are out for a walk or driving somewhere, Cedar asks to visit the spider.

“I never knew how so well orientated he was in town,” his mother said. “I come frequently. He'll ask to come this way to see the spider.”

The Black Family Visual Arts Center and its Maffei Arts Plaza were opened in September. “Crouching Spider” joined soon after and contrasts the extremes of contemporary art with another piece, “Dartmouth Panels” by artist Ellsworth Kelly. The presentation ranges from Bourgeois' descriptive work to Kelly's cerebral and minimalist work.

“There is a wonderful synergy and dialogue between Louise Bourgeois's 'Crouching Spider' and Ellsworth Kelly's 'Dartmouth Panels', which now face each other in the Maffei Arts Plaza,” Taylor said. “Ellsworth Kelly is one of the great living abstract painters.”

Taylor said he plans to increase public art at Dartmouth.

“I really want to bring art all over the campus and that's good for the local community,” he said. “We're all a community. We all live here and art speaks to everyone.”


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