On 21st April 2017, the world-famous sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz passed away at the age of 86. Her work can be found in the most prestigious institutions around the world, including the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto. Here, we recall some of her most famous works.
Since the early 1960s, Magdalena Abakanowicz employed fabric as a sculptural material in her art. She created a cycle of spatial and organic works woven from different fibres in intense colours, often exhibited suspended from the ceilings of galleries. These monumental compositions, known as Abakans, drew their title from the name of the artist and were Abakanowicz’s ticket to international success, despite the dominance of pop art and conceptual art at the time. In 1962, Abakanowicz’s work impressed audiences and critics at the Lausanne International Tapestry Biennale, and three years later it was awarded the gold medal at the Biennale in São Paulo.
Of the sculptures, renowned Polish art historian, theoretician and critic Małgorzata Kitowska- Łysiak writes:
Abakans reflected Abakanowicz's sculptor-like approach to fabric and to the technical possibilities of manipulating the medium. She took advantage of its softness, pliancy and submissiveness. However, the huge, circular sheets take on an animalistic form under the artist's touch. Abakans look dangerous, their hides resembling those stripped off giant monsters, an effect enhanced by the artist's use of a superhuman scale for these mysterious beings.
One of the best-known works by Abakanowicz is the sculptural installation Embryology (1978-1980), today part of the collection at the Tate in Great Britain. The installation consists of hundreds of hand-stitched organic objects of various sizes arranged unevenly across the exhibition space. The title and shape of the work suggest a cocooned form of life, not yet ready to emerge and flourish. Embryology was first presented in 1980 at the Venice Biennale.
The work of Magdalena Abakanowicz often returns to the motif of man, his body, and his condition and position in the modern world. Working with jute and resin, Abakanowicz created anonymous groups of almost identical figures – standing, walking or sitting – which are exhibited in museums or installed in landscapes. These works includeAlterations (1974-1975) – twelve hollow figures sitting in a row; Heads (1973-1975) – a series of enormous, solid forms reminiscent of human heads without faces; Backs (1978-1980) – eighty negatives of the human form; Crowd I (1986-1987) – fifty standing figures; Ragazzi (1990) – forty ‘skins’ stripped off young boys. Beginning in the 1980s, Abakanowicz also used other natural materials in her sculptures, including bronze, wood and stone.
Of these figures, the art historian Karol Sienkiewicz wrote:
Abakanowicz's figures have no faces, they lack this element of autonomy which determines the individual's features. Deprived of faces, they have no identity and no right to speak. Even though each figure has some specific features that differentiate one from the others, they are difficult to notice. What's important is the repetitiveness, 'identicalness', impersonality. The individual always gets lost in the crowd, but it's also in the crowd where it finds its place.
King Arthur’s Knights
Many of Abakanowicz’s works have been realised in urban spaces and they usually refer to humans, either metaphorically or directly through the study of their incomplete, damaged or suffering bodies. In Israel stand seven stone circles entitled Negev (1987); in South Korea Space of Dragon (1988) consists of ten metaphorical bronze animal heads; in Japan, The Frozen (1993) collects forty bronze figures; and in the USA, twenty-two granite boulders entitled Space of Stone (2002). The largest of these installations – a group of a hundred and twelve cast iron figures entitled Unrecognised (2002) is in Poland, in Poznań’s Cytadela Park. Also in Poland, in Elbląg, stands Abakanowicz’s first work to be placed permanently in a non-gallery environment, the tree-like steel form she created during the 1st Biennale of Spatial Forms in 1965.
Totally different than her previous works, Abakanowicz’s King Arthur’s Knights (2005-2007) was originally installed in front of the National Museum in Wrocław, and later in Traugutta Park in Warsaw. ‘Although raw, they have a fairy-tale, poetic character’, says Mariusz Hermansdorfer, director of the Wrocław Museum. The four abstract figures of the knights of King Arthur – Wizard, Parsifal, Lancelot and Galahad – are gigantic sculptures made of steel weighing 400kg each. The collection was also shown in 2008 at the Museo de Arte Renia Sofia in Madrid.
Sources: culture.pl, author’s own material, ed. Agnieszka Sural, 25.04.2017; trans. AGA, 13.06.2017