A hollow humanoid fragment rendered in raw, tactile swathes of burlap and resin, Untitled is a haunting existential vision from Magdalena Abakanowicz’s seminal cycle Alterations. Executed in 1976, during a period of growing international acclaim for the artist, it is a rare example of a singular standing torso within her oeuvre, truncated at the arms, legs and head like a relic from antiquity. Beginning in 1973 and culminating in the landmark sequence ‘Embryology’, shown at the 1980 Venice Biennale, Abakanowicz’s Alterations stand among the twentieth century’s most poignant meditations on the human condition. Inspired by the horrors she witnessed as a child in war-torn Poland, as well as her wide-ranging interests in science, nature and materiality, they confront the viewer like organic remains, their surfaces wrinkled and worn as if by the passage of time. Cast from a live model on a human scale, these works marked a pivotal embrace of figurative subject matter, inaugurating an approach to art-making that would consume her for the rest of her career. Over time, her figures would proliferate in bronze, stone, wood and clay, gracing public locations including Chicago’s Grant Park, New York Avenue in Washington D. C. and the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Widely considered one of Poland’s most important artists, Abakanowicz will be celebrated in a major retrospective this summer at Tate, London, where a number of works from the Alterations series are currently housed.
Treating found, everyday materials as an extension of her own body, Abakanowicz broke new ground with her sculptural and conceptual approach to textiles. As a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw under the Stalinist regime of the 1950s, she railed against the limiting dogmas of Socialist Realism, turning initially to the politically-neutral medium of weaving. She rose to prominence in the mid-1960s with her series of Abakans: vast abstract woven structures, created from salvaged fibres, which were suspended from ceilings and walls. Extending the Duchampian legacy of the ‘readymade’ object, Abakanowicz would eventually begin to experiment with burlap – a medium favoured by Alberto Burri. Her humanoid figures responded directly to the material’s metamorphic, skin-like texture, shifting from ‘Heads’ to ‘Backs’ to ‘Seated Figures’ with a sense of organic evolution. Frequently, they multiplied into groups, assuming the dynamics of a biological ecosystem. Alone, however, they became totems of human frailty, weathered by forces beyond their control. The grandeur of Rodin, Michelangelo, the Belvedere torso and the great depictions of the Crucifixion linger in the shadows of the present work, yet Abakanowicz’s vision is ultimately anti-heroic. In its base materiality, it reminds us of the fleeting, elemental nature of existence – ‘the greatest question and the greatest mystery’ (M. Abakanowicz, quoted in M. Brenson, ‘Survivor Art’, The New York Times Magazine, 29 November 1992).