The Critics: Exhibitions: The kiss of the spiderwoman

Louise Bourgeois Serpentine Gallery, W2 Phillip King Bernard Jacobson Gallery, W1 Rachel Whiteread Anthony d'Offay Gallery, W1

Three current London exhibitions prompt thoughts about contemporary sculpture: Phillip King is at Bernard Jacobson, Rachel Whiteread is at Anthony d'Offay, and Louise Bourgeois at the Serpentine. Of the three, King has the most powerful and instinctive sculptural feeling. Whiteread's show consolidates rather than advances her reputation; and Bourgeois is an especial marvel. Now in her 87th year, she is among the last of the surrealists, and has managed to give an unusual twist to the tail end of the tradition.

That is because Bourgeois is also a feminist. Classic surrealism had many revolutionary ideas, but emancipation of women was never a part of its programme. Practically all Bourgeois's work proclaims her womanhood in one way or another, so her sculpture has a continuity of feeling with much present-day women's art that began in the 1970s. For this reason she does not look particularly original. Bourgeois makes sculpture by assembling (rather than by carving or modelling) and she has a tendency to introduce clothing and other textiles, to hang or drape her materials, to emphasise parts of the body and to allude to domestic environments.

I was surprised by the cold, even malevolent aura of much of the work. Advanced age has not made Bourgeois a more gentle artist. There is an edge of enmity in her sculpture. Perhaps it is a part of the surrealist inheritance, conceivably an aspect of her character. In any case, she does not conceal from us that she is on the offensive. Bourgeois likes to suspend things from a metal armature to suggest death through hanging or torture. She does so with much conviction. Indeed, the feeling of hostility is so strong that a little time passes before we conclude that we are looking at a cliche. Chemises hanging from large plastic bones, for instance. This is not new: far from it. Nor does the piece have genuine sculptural force. The momentary thrill comes from the idea of a grandmother wielding a very sharp needle.

The best piece in the show, intriguing and almost dignified, is In Respite of 1993. Spools and bobbins are supported by a tall pole, while a tongue- like pink element, pierced with needles, falls from a position three-quarters of the way up this pole. Visually, the influences on the sculpture come from Duchamp and Dali. In Respite takes us back to the zany bits of machinery invented by the surrealists in the 1930s; just at the time when Bourgeois was becoming an artist in her native Paris. She moved to New York in 1938 but to this day must be classed as a French sculptor.

At the Serpentine, one distinguished between the more straightforwardly murderous pieces and those with a nostalgic or autobiographical flavour. I prefer the former; at least one knows the score. There are two of the latter type. Both approach the installation mode, though they are circular and the spectator looks at them from outside their perimeters. In the Serpentine's central room, a dramatic effect is created by a huge model of a spider which seems to guard a steel cage. Within the cage are bits of furniture and tapestry, apparently connected with Bourgeois's memories of childhood. The piece is unbelievable: dark and operatic, as though its artist had been watching too many horror movies.

Phillip King is the only artist of the Sixties St Martin's generation to have taken any interest in Surrealism, with occasional bizarre and excellent results. His new exhibition seems unconsidered, even reckless. It looks as though King has decided to do just as he wishes, like some young rebel. In truth these two dozen smallish sculptures are the result of much previous thought. The more one looks at the show, the more it reveals an authentic sculptural philosopher. Here are crazy juxtapositions, many new inventions in the way of materials - plastic, aluminium, paper, steel, all in the same piece - and paint that appears to be improvised. You think the sculptures ought not to work. They do. For all their roughness, they are perfect.

King, born and brought up in Tunisia, is an international artist who has recently been working in Japan. One result is his use of nao-paper. I do not understand all its qualities, but the sculptures make me think that nao-paper is somewhere between a leaf and a slice of wood. Obviously it can be moulded, or torn, or painted. King seems not to take knives or scissors to this paper, out of reverence or natural gentility. He has a similar feeling for other materials. It's difficult to be sensitive towards plastic, or the steel twistings of scaffolding clasps; or it would be for most of us. King takes such materials, feels them, and they respond to his mind and hand.

Another aspect of King's work is his interest in public sculpture. At Bernard Jacobson's are three maquettes for pieces whose homes will be in the open air. Bus Shelter is obviously an inapposite title for an arching, open structure. But the title makes one think - we have so many bus shelters, they are all so awful, and how much does one cost, compared to the price of a sculpture? About the same? The second maquette has a Sixties colour sense, matching red and deep blue against three different greens; note the beauty of the vase built into the structure. To make a truly aesthetic vase is a sculptural exercise. Potters can never manage the task. King is a consummate vase-maker, always perfectly combining line with volume.

A third maquette also takes us back to the 1960s. Reel II updates a piece made a quarter of a century ago. The finished sculpture is destined for a site outside the British Council building overlooking the Mall. Perhaps, with lottery money and a fresh look at the environment, we are entering a new period of public sculpture. Rachel Whiteread is one of three artists asked to make a sculpture for the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. Characteristically - all too characteristically, some might say - she proposes to make a cast of the plinth and then put it in place, upside down.

As her Anthony d'Offay show proves, Whiteread is an artist with traditional instincts. She continues the conventions of funereal monuments. Nothing in her exhibition is exactly new: nearly everything is concerned with death. Her place in Trafalgar Square is appropriately chosen, for there is a strain of official Edwardian melancholy in the buildings and monuments between the National Gallery and the Cenotaph. Whiteread's career has taken odd turns, and this is the strangest of them all. She is not now in competition with her Britpack contemporaries, but rather with Lutyens, the Cenotaph's designer.

Louise Bourgeois, sponsored by BMW FS Group: Serpentine Gallery, W2 (0171 402 6075), to 10 January; Phillip King: Bernard Jacobson Gallery, W1 (0171 495 8575), to Saturday; Rachel Whiteread: Anthony d'Offay Gallery, W1 (0171 499 4100), to 15 January.

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