New York

Magdalena Abakanowicz

Marlborough | Midtown

Vivid memories of World War II and four decades of communism inform the art of the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. The complexity of transforming autobiography into art was thoughtfully addressed in her two recent shows. At the Marlborough Gallery, her sculptures—scattered throughout the rooms and placed outside on the terrace—were drawn from Hand-like Trees, 1992–93, the series “Circus,” 1992, the multiple-figured Puellae, 1992–93, and Infantes, 1992. But the monumental Embryology, 1978–81, first presented at the Venice Biennale in 1980, dominated the show. A morass of 600 hand-stitched elements made of burlap, cotton, gauze, hemp, nylon, and sisal, shaped like boulders, stones, and pebbles, was arranged to allow the viewer to walk among these pieces. Like swaddling clothes for invisible babies, these elements formed a distressing pile of organic structures, thrown on top of each other as if in a collective grave. In Embryology personal identity is confronted by both nature and history, recalling Abakanowicz’s famous multiple “Crowd” series, first conceived in 1986 and executed in various media.

Abakanowicz’s archetypal figure-shells, which evoke unprotected brains, also appear in “Circus.” Balancing on wooden stumps and beams, open metal bases or wheels of various shapes, they look like actors in a play gone awry, striving to be at once tragic and pleasing. In this show, the artist’s ability to stage a silent drama was best transmitted in Puellae, a group of headless bronze figures that looked particularly poignant aligned against a wall of the gallery’s terrace, as if facing a mass execution or awaiting a roll call.

The exhibition at the P.S. 1 Museum, curated by Michael Brenson, was less eclectic, presenting 11 of the 16 “War Games” sculptures, 1987–93, made of fallen trunks found in Polish forests. Shaped by axes, chainsaws, and chisels, several of them referred directly to nature—entitled with the names of birds such as Kos (Blackbird, 1993), Kuka (Cuckoo, 1993), and Sroka (Magpie, 1992). Equipped with metal bands and “beaks,” placed in a horizontal position on open metal bases or, in one case, on a set of metal barrels, and sometimes bandaged with burlap soaked in resin, these works alluded to the threat of destruction, but also to the spirit of survival.

Rather than linking “War Games” to the tragedy of war or to ecological disaster—as many critics have done—we might observe that their depiction of suffering includes inflicting pain on the materials employed. 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. This very cruelty ultimately enables her to eschew the comforts of the realms of myth and fairy tale. In these exceptional sculptures, rather than making direct analogies to the haunting memories of the past, Abakanowicz transmits paradigms of destruction charged with contradictory emotions.

Marek Bartelik