Contemporary sculptures find home amid staid museum collection

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BALTIMORE – A bizarre sort of Easter egg hunt is going on at the Walters Art Museum.

Visitors wandering through the museum’s galleries of ancient, medieval and Renaissance art are finding themselves drawn to pink labels identifying contemporary sculptures integrated – sometimes seamlessly, sometimes jarringly – into the permanent collection.

The sculptures are by Louise Bourgeois, 94, a French-born American whose celebrated work includes roughhewn, abstract forms and creepy spiders that she says honor her mother, a weaver who restored tapestries.

The Walters installation, however, focuses on another recurring theme of Bourgeois’ long career: the female form. “Louise Bourgeois: Femme” celebrates her sometimes whimsical, sometimes violent depictions of the body while discovering surprising links to art dating back thousands of years.

“How many artists get to see their work literally inserted into the permanent collections of these old, revered institutions, filled with artifacts from ancient Egypt?” said Eik Kahng, curator of 18th- and 19th-century art at the Walters. “It’s pretty crazy, pretty wild.”

It’s also a striking illustration of how some art has changed very little throughout recorded history. Without the identifying label, a casual observer may not notice that a Bourgeois sculpture, “Harmless Woman” (1969), sits in the same case with Minoan objects, dating back to 4000 B.C., that also depict the female form with elegant simplicity.

“Sometimes, I think it’s really hard to notice her stuff, which I think is really a tribute to the strength of her sculpture,” Kahng said.

Bourgeois has had an unusual career. Born in Paris in 1911, she was influenced by the surrealists of her youth and did some painting. She moved into sculpture, and her work was exhibited in the late 1940s. But it wasn’t until a 1983 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art that she became a phenomenon in the art world. .

Bourgeois continues to work prolifically, although she does not travel far from her New York home. Her longtime collaborator, Jerry Gorovoy, helped curators select and place the pieces included in the Walters exhibition. Rather than explanatory wall text, each sculpture is accompanied by a quotation selected by the artist.

And for those who come expecting spiders, there are a few, including a big one, “Spider II” (1995), in the museum lobby. Painted on the wall next to it are these words, which serve as an entry into the exhibition: “I have endeavored during my whole lifetime as a sculptor to turn woman from an object into an active subject.”

Kahng said Bourgeois’ association of the spider with her mother’s artistry and protectiveness – rather than the more cliched view of a spider as a murderous seductress – is a key to understanding her work.

“That’s the thing to know about Louise Bourgeois more than anything else, is her own immediate reality and her own emotional landscape that is always the subject of her work,” Kahng said.

While her sculptures often take organic forms, Bourgeois resists anatomically correct representation. A plaster sculpture called “Blind Man’s Buff,” with dozens of rounded forms that could represent phalluses or breasts, sits among male nudes in the Walters’ Greek gallery and dares the visitor to look at the ancient work in a new light.

“People are always accusing her and wanting to know why she’s obsessed with sexual parts,” Kahng said. “She refuses to even admit that these things are directly representational, and they aren’t, really, in a sense. They’re suggestive of lots of different organic shapes and natural forms.”

“Louise Bourgeois: Femme” remains on view at the Walters through May 21.

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