Magdalena Abakanowicz

De-Cordova And Dana Museum

Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the traveling Magdalena Abakanowicz retrospective afforded the North American audience an overdue opportunity to view the mature work of this major international sculptor. The exhibit spanned the ’70s and early ’80s, when the artist developed an innovative exploration in fibrous media of the traditional concerns of sculpture—the expressive potential of the body. Although Abakanowicz recalls such artists as Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, and George Segal, the isolation and turbulence of her esthetic growth separates her from her more familiar contemporaries. For these reasons, her art has a singularity. Fundamental and enveloping, it is laden with the suffering of history suffused with an intensely emotional fertility.

Abakanowicz’s work is entwined with both her solitary youth and the sorrows of her country. She was born in 1930 in Falenty, a rural village near Warsaw. As a child she retreated into nature, to the woods and fields which surrounded her parents’ estate, and the communion with organic life she found there forms the core of her art. In 1943 soldiers burst into the family’s home; she witnessed as her mother was shot in the arm, severing her hand. Fragments of the human body, including a single sisal hand in The Hand, 1976, recur throughout the work.

Abakanowicz began weaving large-scale reliefs in hemp, sisal, flax, and horsehair in the early ’60s. She has created two massive bodies of work, both of which were well represented in this exhibit. The “Abakans,” 1964–75—named after the artist by the Polish critic Hanna Ptaszkowska—are monumental, coarsely woven, monochromatic forms suspended in space. They bring tapestry into the third dimension, initiating an as yet unresolved challenge to the hierarchical categorization of fiber as a “low” art medium. The actual experience of such works as Black Environment, 1970–78, an installation of fifteen huge oval weavings in sisal suspended from the ceiling in triangular formation, renders the dispute academic. Black Environment simulates an entering of the body; its thrusts and recessions, towering tubular forms and dense hairy folds, and animal smells of natural fibers enclose the viewer in an immense, sensual landscape of sexual holism.

In the early ’70s Abakanowicz initiated a second cycle of works collectively titled “Alterations,” which includes the overtly figurative “Heads,” 1973–75, “Seated Figure,” 1974–79, “Backs,” 1976–82, and the more abstracted forms of “Embryology,” 1978–81, and “Pregnant,” 1981–82. In these freestanding works she moved from woven to preexistent materials (burlap, gauze, wood, rope) and to off-loom techniques, such as the use of casts to form burlap shapes.

In Abakanowicz’s work, intuitive realities are made tangible. A brief review can only hint at the complexities of her output, which encompasses such subjects as the cyclical temporality of nature (birth, existence, decay, regeneration), the dualism of interior and exterior being (soft and hard), the enigma of penetration, the muteness of suffering, the tenacious but fragile connections among forms of organic life, and the schizophrenic, distorted results of their breakdown in an overly technological world—this last most apparent in the deformed swellings of “Heads.”

For “Backs” Abakanowicz hollow-cast a series of figures in burlap and glue from a singular mold. Fifty-four of these figures, slumped forward and truncated at the head and knees, were installed in four rows facing a blank gallery wall. Wrenchingly affective, suggesting myriad, sometimes contradictory interpretations, the work conjured associations of fascist submission, of a Jim Jones–style collective suicide, of a prayer group, or of an unknown ritual of infinite waiting. Obsessive repetition was countered by the internal gestures of the burlap, which had been variously folded, wrinkled, pinched, and stretched, intimating the intractability of uniqueness within rigid conformity.

“Embryology” is comprised of eight hundred stuffed ovoids of sacking, cotton gauze, hemp, nylon, and sisal, ranging from tiny egg shapes to larger-than-life mummified forms. Hugging the geometric white walls or heaped into the central space, exuding the sheep odors of the materials, these transmitted an overpowering sensation of gestation and putrefaction. Thin, gauzy shells revealed an intravenous interior of tangled threads, while the stitched burlap recalled scars and sutures. Round and phallic shapes were massed in profusion to form dark, recessionary spaces alluding to the birth canal. Surrounded by this anomalous multitude of sensual cocoons, one again felt the enigma of waiting, the cyclical silent process of birth and mortality.

Abakanowicz states that “the point of the images is to show all that which escapes conceptualization.” Her work is empowered by recognition, a quality of discovering something nameless which has already been perceived by the unconscious. She creates a form language for an ineffable dimension of experience, which acknowledges the known and the impenetrable. Her art is achingly hollow, and extraordinarily complete.

Nancy Stapen