Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017) was born into a landed family of rich, Polish gentry. The family’s fortunes were transformed by the Second World War, with the Abakanowiczes forced to flee their country estate once Communist rule was imposed on Poland by the Soviet Union. They took with them only the coins they could sew into their clothing.
The family settled in a tiny apartment in Warsaw, the city where Magdalena would enrol in the Academy of Fine Arts aged 20. Discouraged by her professors from pursuing painting, she turned to weaving instead — then deemed a more appropriate practice for women.
In later life, Abakanowicz reflected that this had actually been a positive thing. The state-approved painting style, Socialist Realism, would have been limiting for her artistically, demanding as it did scenes glorifying Communist life. Works in fabric, by contrast, came under little scrutiny, meaning she had considerable creative freedom.
In the 1960s, the artist found success with a radical set of tapestries that were unlike anything previously seen. Known as ‘Abakans’, these tapestries were not flat, genteel offerings intended to tell a story or decorate a wall, but roughly-woven, abstract tangles of sisal fibre, imposingly hung from the ceiling. They won her the Grand Prize at 1965’s São Paulo Biennial.
Abakanowicz’s fame soon spread far beyond Poland, and she began to move away from weaving her own structures, using burlap instead, which she gnarled and stretched. From the mid-1970s, her work also became characterised by groups of intriguing, frequently unsettling, humanoid figures known as ‘Alterations’. The series culminated in the landmark sequence ‘Embryology’, shown in the Polish Pavilion at the 1980 Venice Biennale.
‘When examining man, I am in fact examining myself,’ she said. ‘My forms are the skins I strip off myself one by one, marking the milestones along my road.’
Over time, her figures would proliferate in bronze, stone, wood and clay, while invitations came to exhibit in museums and public spaces worldwide, including Edinburgh Cathedral; the roof garden of the Metropolitan Museum; and Grant Park in Chicago (where her piece, Agora, is permanently installed).
Prior to its lengthy delay due to the Covid pandemic, Ann Coxon, curator of the Abakanowicz retrospective, spoke to us about the exhibition, which finally opened in 2022.
Why is Magdalena Abakanowicz such an important artist?
Ann Coxon: ‘She was a pioneer of what we now call “installation art”. There wasn’t a name for it back in Abakanowicz’s heyday, for the simple reason that it was something very new at the time.
‘You can call her works tapestries, but what she was creating, above all, were experiential environments. We’ve become used to installation today [through works by everyone from Yayoi Kusama to Olafur Eliasson], but it once was an extraordinary development. And Abakanowicz was a godmother of that. Her pieces create a reaction not just because of what they are, but because of where they are.’
So you prefer not to focus on the part she played in the so-called ‘Fibre art’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s?
AC: ‘That’s certainly the way that many, over the years, have seen her — [alongside Sheila Hicks and Claire Zeisler] as one of a group of female artists who created textile works in connection to gender politics. Abakanowicz wasn’t a feminist, though, or she wouldn’t have identified as one. She didn’t want her art to be defined solely in terms of female practice. Her concerns were richer and broader than that.’
Given her privileged background, did she have many run-ins with the Soviet Bloc authorities?
AC: ‘She actually seems to have been well-supported by the state. They granted her a decent-sized studio in Warsaw, for example, as well as a visa to travel, neither of which were easily come by. I think it helped that she played down her well-to-do background. At art school, she chose to assume the fake identity of a clerk’s daughter.’
What can visitors expect from the Tate exhibition?
AC: ‘Our show-stoppers will be the Abakans. We’ll have somewhere between 15 and 20 displayed together in one gallery, which should be quite something, given that just 30 exist.
‘Politics are bound up in her work, but Abakanowicz was never overtly political, either as a person or an artist’ — curator Ann Coxon
‘It’s often said that the Abakans are named as such because that’s a contracted version of “Abakanowicz”. But the point is that there really were no words around at the time to describe these stunning, hanging structures [which the artist hand-wove and hand-dyed, and are an average of 15 feet tall and five feet wide]. Abakans seemed as good a name as any. They’re big, spectacle-hungry things that usually were exhibited in sets [rather than individually, so as to create a sense of both monumentality and penetrability, as visitors walk under and around them].’
After the Abakans, Abakanowicz moved onto series in which she surveyed the human body: such as ‘Heads’ (1973-75), ‘Seated Figures’ (1976) and ‘Backs’ (1976-82), which consisted of a group of anonymous figures, arranged in geometric order and — depending on the series — distinguished by being headless, limbless, sexless or expressionless. Might we interpret these figures politically — as victims of totalitarian oppression and the death of individuality under Communism?
AC: ‘I think politics are certainly bound up in her work, but Abakanowicz was never overtly political, either as a person or an artist. She couldn’t afford to be initially; but even after the fall of Communism in the early 1990s she refused to attach explicit, political meaning to her art. Just as she refused to attach explicit, autobiographical meaning either.’
By ‘autobiographical’, are you referring to incidents like that during the Second World War when a drunk German soldier burst into the family home and shot Magdalena’s mother’s arm off?
AC: ‘Yes, or the fact that she never had children, which some critics have used as the prism through which to view her Embryology series. The installations in Embryology feature multiple, rounded forms of different sizes: forms that, to those critics’ eyes, look like cocoons or embryos or kinds of new-born creatures. Even though, to other eyes, they look more like potatoes!
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‘Magdalena’s works are ambiguous and highly evocative — and all the more powerful for not being literal depictions of actual people or things. They evoke humankind in general, humankind in its entirety.’
Magdalena Abakanowicz: Every Tangle of Thread and Rope at Tate Modern, London, runs until 21 May 2023