Magdalena Abakanowicz, born 1930 in Falenty near Warsaw, is one of Poland-s most acclaimed artists both at home and abroad, with a growing body of work in sculpture that has truly broken the mold. After studying painting from 1950-1954 at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, Abakanowicz soon shifted her focus to sculpture, leading to a series of diverse, monumental 'cycles' in which she employed a variety of materials and introduced into post-modern art the concept of the crowd, an idea with many ramifications for the artist, such as the multiplicity of only slightly varied 'individuals', each lost in the anonymity of "the countless".
As she puts it: I feel overwhelmed by quantity where counting no longer makes sense. By unrepeatability within such quantity". A crowd of people or birds, insect or leaves, is a mysterious assemblage of variants of a certain prototype, a riddle of nature abhorrent to exact repetition or inability to produce it... Each of her figures is an individuality, with specific details of skin, with the imprint of the artist's fingers.
Her first major independent achievement were three-dimensional textile sculptures that she called "Abakans", woven from a variety of fibres, through which she indulged her fascination with the soft, loose fabric and its texture, combined with expressive color. Hung from the ceiling in a radical break from traditional decorative wall-hangings, her enormous, multiple, organic-looking shapes looked almost dangerous, resembling flakes of porous hide stripped off giant monsters, an effect enhanced by the artist's use of a very big, superhuman scale, the law of the series and activities reminiscent of environment art. Years later she wrote: "[They] irritated. They were untimely. There was the French tapestry in weaving, pop-art and conceptual art, and here there were some complicated, huge, magic [forms]..." Yet her "Abakans" delighted critics and viewers alike at the 1964 International Biennial of Tapestry in Lausanne and earned the artist the gold medal at the 1967 Sao Paulo Biennial, launching Abakanowicz's international reputation. "Abakans" reflected well Abakanowicz's sculptor-like approach to fabric and to technical possibilities of molding it. She took advantage of its softness, pliancy, and submissiveness to the artist's intentions. However, the huge, circular sheets remind one more of the animal than of the plant kingdom. "When examining man, I am in fact examining myself...", she has confessed about her later sculptures.
My forms are the skins I strip off myself one by one, marking the milestones along my road. Each time they belong so much to me and I belong to them so that we cannot exist without one another. Soft, they contain an infinite number of possible shapes of which only one can be selected by myself as the right, meaningful one. I create space for them in exhibition rooms where they radiate the energy I have given them. This self-commentary seems to refer also to the "Abakans". Perhaps it is so because they retain the unique character of the fabric and their strong colors disregard the natural color of the material - there is a Red Abakan (1967); Brown Abakan (1969-72); Orange Clothes (1969); Black Environment (1970-78). Later works lose their individuality in a double way: through the artist multiplying one shape and through her adopting one, monochromatic color scheme, defined by the properties of the material.
Abakanowicz has remained faithful to the law of the series, preferring sets to individual works. For an exhibition in the 70s called Organic Structures she placed a few dozen oval forms made of sackcloth and filled with a soft substance, the echo of a lasting childhood impression, which she reminiscences: I was very young. I crouched down over a boggy pond to watch tadpoles [...] Years later things which were soft, with a complex tissue, became my material. I feel a relationship and kinship with the world which I do not want to know but through touching, feeling and relating to the part of myself which I carry deep inside me. [...] There is no tool between me and the material I create with. 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.
In the 70s Abakanowicz shifted to works with a harder surface - coarse sackcloth pieces bonded with synthetic resin, while continuing to create a succession of 'series' or group sculptures, the figures hauntingly headless, as in Backs (1976-80) - 80 slightly differing "negatives" of the human trunk; The Crowd I (1986-7) - 50 standing figures; Ragazzi (1990) - 40 "skins" stripped off young boys; 30 Backward Seated Figures (1993-4), and 7 Dancing Figures (2001-2), among others. In the 1980s she also began using metal (mostly bronze), wood, stone, and sometimes clay.
At the same time, she was exploring and developing a shift in the very meaning of her sculpture from "objects to look at" into "spaces for contemplation", where the tension of space invited the viewer to go in amongst the forms of petrified energy. The first was Katarsis (1986), thirty-three larger-than-life bronze humanoid figures in a permanent open-air display near Pistoia, Italy, that evokes a man of lost identity, an androgenic everyman, and, as she puts it, "man's horrible powerlessness against his biological structure".
It was only in the late 80s that the normally reticent Abakanowicz started to comment more extensively about her life and work. Shy by nature and lonely in the creative process, it is said she has made her contact with people primarily through her more than one hundred personal exhibitions, which she arranged herself as "still ceremonies". She went on to receive large outdoor commissions in Japan, South Korea, Israel, Lithuania, and other countries, where she has created out of bronze or stone many of these enormous "spaces for contemplation". In the view of many, very few images in contemporary art are as emotive or as disturbing.
Of the individual figures in her haunting groups there must be over a thousand, but spread all over the world. Such projects have included Sarkophagi in Glass Houses (France 1983-89), Negev (Israel 1987 - 7 stone circles), Space of Dragon (South Korea 1988 - 10 metaphorical bronze animal heads), The Frozen (Japan 1993 - 40 bronze figures), Hand-Like Trees (USA 1993 - 5 metaphorical bronze trees), Space of Unknown Growth (Lithuania 1997-98 - 22 concrete forms), Walking Figures (USA 1999 - 20 bronze figures), Birds - Knowledge of Good and Evil (USA 2001 - 6 bird-alike aluminium figures), Space of Stone (USA 2002 - 22 granite boulders). The largest of such installations - a group of 112 cast-iron figures entitled Unrecognized (2002) - is in Poland, in the Poznan na Cytadeli Park. The most recent one is the project Agora for Chicago City, installed in November 2006 in a 3-acre area of Grant Park along Michigan Avenue and Roosevelt Road. The site is populated by 106 cast iron figures, each about 9 feet tall, shell-like, frozen in walking movement.
In 1991 Abakanowicz got a commission from the City of Paris to develop the western side of La Defense, to which she replied with a bold conception of "arboreal architecture". Another architectural project of hers was The Hand (1994) - "tower sculpture" commissioned by the City of Hiroshima to commemorate victims of the atomic bomb. Also here the artist intended the walls of her construction to be, over time, overgrown with plants. Neither design was implemented.
Abakanowicz has had over 150 solo exhibitions in Europe, North and South America, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, including major shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, National Gallery of Art in Washington, Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, the Jardins du Palais Royal in Paris, Hiroshima City Museum, Museum Sonje in Kyongju, Korea, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris, National Museum in Wroclaw, and the National Museum in Poznan, Poland.
She has also participated in major international art reviews, notably in Lausanne (from 1962 to 1976 and in 1985), Venice (1968, 1980, 1995), São Paulo (1965), Antwerp (International Open Air Sculpture Biennial, 1983), Sydney (1986).
Her works can be found in major museums around the world, including New York's Metropolitan and MoMA, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC. For many years Abakanowicz has been represented by the Marlborough Gallery in New York.
Among numerous prizes and distinctions, Abakanowicz has received six honorary doctorates from universities in Europe and the United States (including Royal College of Art, London, and School of the Art Institute, Chicago) as well as the Commodore's Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta from Poland and Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres from France. She has been a guest lecturer in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Boston, New York, San Diego, Sydney and Tokyo. For 25 years she taught at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznan (1965-1990), and currently she lives and works in Warsaw.
Based in part on: Magdalena Abakanowicz by Malgorzata Kitowska-Lysiak, Art History Institute of the Catholic University of Lublin, 2004, www.culture.pl.
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Space of Stone, 2002, 22 granite stones, Ground for Sculpture, Hamilton, New Jersey, USA
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Abakan Round, 1967, sisal weaving on metal support, 300 x 100 x 100 cm, and 3 Brown Abakans, 1969/1972, sisal weaving, 300 x 300 x 350 cm, collection of the artist
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Embryology at the Venice Biennale 1980, 1978-1980, Burlap, cotton gauze, hemp rope, nylon and sisal, Approximately 800 pieces: from 4 to 250 cm long, Collection of the artist
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Negev, 1987, limestone, 7 discs dia. 280 cm, width 60 cm, collection: Israel Museum, Sculpture Garden, Jerusalem
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Katarsis, 1985, bronze, 33 figures, each ca. 270 x 100 x 50 cm, collection: Giuliano Gori, "Spazi d'Arte", Italy
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Unrecognized 2001-2002, from the series Crowd, group of 112 figures, 2001/2002, iron cast, each ca 210 x 70 x 95 cm, City of Poznan, Cytadela Park
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Agora, 2005-2006, iron, 106 figures 285-295 x 95-100 x 135-145 cm, Permanent installation in Grant Park, Chicago
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Figure on Trunk at the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum 1999, 1998, bronze, 244 x 262 x 61 cm, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Magdalena Abakanowicz, one of Warsaw Backs, 1990, burlap, resin, 40 pieces, each different, each about 80 x 70 x 75 cm, Collection of the Sezon Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo