Polish sculptor and fiber artist Magdalena Abakanowicz has died at the age of eighty-six, the rector of Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts said on Friday, April 21. Perhaps best known for her biomorphic large-scale sculptures of headless human figures made from thick fibers hardened with synthetic resins, the artist once said: “There is no tool between me and the material I use. I choose it with my hands. I shape it with my hands. My hands transmit my energy to it. By translating an idea into a shape, they will always pass on something escaping conceptualization. They will reveal the unconscious.”
Born on June 20, 1930, in Falenty, Poland, Abakanowicz began her artistic career as a painter and soon shifted to creating sculptural forms with textiles. Her soft sculptures made from dyed sisal fiber, known as “Abakans,” were exhibited at the 1964 International Biennial of Tapestry in Lausanne and won a gold medal at the 1967 São Paulo Biennial. She was the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Award for Distinction in Sculpture from the New York Sculpture Center in 1993 and the Leonardo da Vinci World Award of Arts in 1999. Abakanowicz was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań, Poland, from 1965 to 1990, and a visiting professor at a number of institutions in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Boston, New York, San Diego, Sydney, and Tokyo. Her permanent installations can be found in Grant Park, Chicago; at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC; and in Warsaw’s Romuald Traugutt Park. The largest collection of her art is safeguarded by the National Museum in Wrocław in Poland.
In the November 1993 issue of Artforum, Marek Bartelik reviewed her shows at Marlborough Gallery and MoMA PS1. He wrote: “Vivid memories of World War II and four decades of communism inform the art of the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz . . . In order to create her sculptures, Abakanowicz peels the bark, cuts off the limbs, and inserts metal devices into tree trunks, making them look like subjects of double torture, first by an unknown hostile force, then by the artist herself. Yet such ‘cruelty’ allows her to question the binary oppositions of victim and oppressor, love and hate, life and death, while preventing her from simplistically repeating therhetoric that so often surrounds themes of war, totalitarianism, or ecology.”