The Museum of Fine Arts isn't officially in the business of double features, but its film programmers have a potential good one in a pair of documentaries opening today. Both "Richard Serra: Thinking on Your Feet" and "Louise Bourgeois: the Spider, the Mistress, and the Tangerine" loosely demythologize their iconic sculptors. You'll leave thinking differently about both of them.
If Serra has always seemed like the Kirk Douglas of art - absurdly, inescapably masculine, but, in his late youth, trapped in Art Garfunkel's body - that's only the impression his hulking steel slabs leave. He would insist, in his erudite way, that your feelings about his work say more about you.
As for Bourgeois, she talks for almost all of this 97-minute intimate portrait. and I no longer think of her as a demanding theoretician (that better describes Serra). The filmmakers spend most of their time with her in the early 1990s, and they find an intensely self-reflective woman in her 80s. The experience of watching her unpack the meaning of her life in relation to her work (and the other way around) is illuminating but stressful. Remember that professor who spoke while you furiously tried to take notes for an hour and a half, only to read them later at an intellectual loss? She's back.
But Bourgeois is willing, and mostly able, to make you understand her process. Those coiling rubber blobs? They were based on twisted wet fabric. The assorted flaccid phalluses? Her mammoth daddy issues. The giant marble-and-steel spider (1999's "Maman") and its bronze casts are seemingly indestructible and unexpectedly protective extensions of her long-dead mother.
The spider outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, makes a cameo in "Thinking on Your Feet," which is focused exclusively on Serra's permanent installation of assorted steel sheets in the Guggenheim's largest gallery. Director Maria Anna Tappeiner doesn't rhapsodize over the works or reconsider their meaning the way the makers of the Bourgeois film do. She observes their construction - curling shavings, snaking ribbons, conical cups - and plays student while Serra tells us what the pieces are all about. As usual, he's fiercely articulate about his monuments to monumentality - process artists always are. Like Bourgeois, Serra, who's 68 now, is a professor by default. With him you'd have fewer notes but denser ones. (Note to self: remember later to mull over "affirmation of play.")
These are films that some museums play in a loop near the exit of a show - or in the gift shop. But the access to both artists is what distinguishes them - the chance to watch Serra take a bowlegged walk through his sculptures, or to study the whorls that make Bourgeois's face resemble a magnificent talking fingerprint.
The unwitting interplay between the two films feels like kismet. While the camera gazes over various Bourgeois spiders, the soundtrack plays Laurie Anderson's electro-ballad "O Superman." It's a song Tappeiner could have used for Serra, a thinking person's man of steel.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.