MAGDALENA ABAKANOWICZ (1930-2017)
Renowned sculptor, Poland's leading visual artist Kosciuszko Foundation Honorary Trustee
Magdalena Abakanowicz, a Polish sculptor who transformed sisal and burlap into brooding forms that evoked the weight of political oppression, the desperation of the individual and the sufferings of the natural world, died on Thursday in Warsaw. She was 86.
She died after a long illness, her husband, Jan Kosmowski, said.
Ms. Abakanowicz (pronounced ah-bah-kah-NO-vich), who once described her sculpture as "a search for organic mysteries," first attracted critical attention in the 1960s with free-standing woven works made from sisal that she unraveled from discarded ships' ropes and dyed.
These Abakans, as they became known, were monumental, some more than 15 feet tall, hollow at the core and fitted with slits and folds. Hanging from the ceiling, nearly touching the floor, they resembled shrouds, twisted tree trunks, cocoons or druid priests — strange forms summoned from the lower depths of the collective unconscious.
"Like all of Abakanowicz's cycles, the 'Abakans' lead outward, away from what they might appear to represent, into psychology and history, toward fundamental links between human beings and nature that are always waiting to be recognized and explored by the imagination," the critic Michael Brenson wrote in Art Journal in 1995.
In the 1970s and '80s, Ms. Abakanowicz embarked on a series of smaller-scale burlap works based on the human figure. They confirmed her growing reputation as one of the most original artists to come out of postwar Poland, a sorceress presiding over her own cult, turning out an endless variety of forms that addressed, in mythic terms, the dark forces at work in the 20th century.
"Abakan Red" (1969), a work in sisal and mixed media by Ms. Abakanowicz. Credit Magdalena Abakanowicz, via The National Museum in Wroclaw
The stretched stitches and gnarled strands bursting their wrappings in the "Heads" series of 1973-75, part of a grander project called "Alterations," suggested, in stark terms, psychic distress tipping over into madness. In the series "Seated Figures" (1974-79) and "Backs" (1976-82), Ms. Abakanowicz used the plaster mold of a man to make glued-burlap forms — headless and armless and sexless — that she deployed in groups.
"Seated Figures" originally consisted of 18 torsos and legs resting on spare metal supports, lined up as though awaiting dire news. The hunched torsos in "Backs" — as many as 80 arranged in rows and bent over as though in prayer, or obeisance or in anticipation of the lash — cast a spell all the more powerful for their ambiguity.
"The face can lie," she told The Los Angeles Times in 2001. "The back cannot."
Two years after exhibiting 40 "Backs" at the 1980 Venice Biennale, Ms. Abakanowicz told The Chicago Tribune: "I was asked by the public: 'Is it about the concentration camps in Poland?' 'Is it a ceremony in old Peru?' 'Is it a ritual in Bali?' To all these questions, I could answer yes because my work is about the general problems of mankind."
Her imagination was fecund, whether working with burlap or, in later years, stone, tree trunks or bronze. "Embryology" (1976-82), the final series in "Alterations," grew to include nearly 700 forms, soft burlap eggs ranging size from pebbles to boulders that looked like enormous Idaho potatoes. She executed 106 standing figures, each nine feet tall, for "Agora," which was installed in Grant Park in Chicago in 2006.
"I turn sculpture from an object to look at into a space to experience," Ms. Abakanowicz told The Chicago Tribune in 2005. "Every sculpture can be turned into decoration. But if you have 100, you are confronted by them and must think and imagine and question yourself. This is what I want."
"Bambini," a group of sculptures by Ms. Abakanowicz installed in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1999. Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Her art grew from difficult circumstances. She was born Marta Abakanowicz on a country estate in Falenty, southwest of Warsaw, on June 20, 1930. Her father, Konstanty, the son of a czarist general, was of Russian, Polish and Tatar extraction, his last name derived from a forebear, Abaqa Khan, who was Genghis Khan's great-grandson. When the Russian Revolution broke out, Konstanty fled to Poland with a brother after the rest of the family was killed. Her mother, the former Helena Domaszowska, belonged to a noble landowning family, and Marta grew up on an estate about 125 miles east of Warsaw left by her grandparents.
War brought ruin and horror. In 1943, drunken German soldiers burst into the family's home and shot Marta's mother, severing her right arm below the shoulder. She survived, but as Soviet troops advanced in 1944, the family relocated to Warsaw. Marta was recruited as a nurse's aide, treating the wounded when German troops put down the futile uprising of the Polish Home Army and laid waste to the city.
After the Communists assumed power, the family moved to Tczew, outside Gdansk, to avoid being identified as class enemies. Marta studied at the fine-arts lyceum in Gdynia and, after graduating in 1949, spent a year at the Gdansk Academy of Fine Arts, then located in Sopot. Around this time, seeking to break with her past, she began using the name Magdalena.
In 1950, pretending to be the daughter of a clerk, she enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where she studied painting after being rejected for the sculpture program.
It was an unhappy time. Socialist Realism, the only approved style, ran counter to her experimental tendencies, expressed in large-scale watercolors and gouaches on stitched-together bedsheets that depicted semiabstract biomorphic forms. "In Poland it was almost forbidden to talk about mystery," she told The New York Times in 1992. "I did."
Ms. Abakanowicz in 2004. "I turn sculpture from an object to look at into a space to experience," she said. Credit Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Images
After graduating from the academy in 1954, she designed material for ties at a silk factory and, in a tiny one-room apartment, continued to paint. In 1965 she married Mr. Kosmowski, a civil engineer.
In 1960, a show of her work at the Kordegarda Gallery in Warsaw was not allowed to open after a cultural official deemed it formalist. As luck would have it, the eminent tapestry artist Maria Laszkiewicz peeked inside and, seeing the fiber-art works that Ms. Abakanowicz had included in the show, added her name to a list of artists to be included in the first Biennale de la Tapisserie in Lausanne in 1962. She also allowed Ms. Abakanowicz to make use of her basement workshop and looms.
For the biennial, Ms. Abakanowicz submitted "Composition of White Forms," in which she used old clothesline to create a rough abstract surface. Three years later she won the gold medal at the São Paulo Biennial.
Chafing at the limits of fabric art, she began to conceive of her work in sculptural terms and created the first Abakans, initially one at a time and later in groups. Works like "Bois-le-Duc" (1970-71), a "forest" series of overlapping black, brown and reddish panels 26 feet tall, and "Black Environment" (1970-78), a grouping of 15 hulking black forms, brought her international attention, especially after she was chosen to represent Poland at the 1980 Venice Biennale. Exhibitions in Los Angeles and Pasadena, Calif., introduced her to an American audience in the early 1970s, and in 1982 the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago organized a traveling retrospective of her work.
Ms. Abakanowicz began using metal in the late 1980s for works like "Bronze Crowd" (1990-91) and "Puellae" (1992). In her most explicitly political series, "War Games," begun in 1989, she used tree trunks rejected as unfit for lumber and, after attacking them with an ax and chain saw, fitted them with steel blades and casings. Some looked like severed human limbs, others like fearsome weapons. Fear, passivity, aggression, suffering — Ms. Abakanowicz stayed true to her themes, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions.
"Everybody can discover in them what he wants to," she told The Chicago Tribune. "Very seldom is the interpretation against my feelings. Most of the time it is something I can accept."