Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930 – 2017) created large woven Abakans in the 60s and 70s. These ambiguous forms challenged existing definitions of sculpture and defied categorisation, as well as paving the way for the concept of installation art.
Abakanowicz first emerged as a leader of the New Tapestry movement in late 60s Europe; a transformative period early in her career, when her weavings came off the wall and into three-dimensional space. She exhibited internationally, bringing her monumental, fibrous forms into new relationships or ‘situations’ within each gallery.
Abakanowicz’s work draws on her childhood memories, including the aftermath of the Second World War. Born into an aristocratic family of Tatar heritage whose circumstances declined over the course of the conflict, she was 15 years old when the war reached its conclusion. Later living in Poland under the Communist regime, she dedicated herself fully to her career as an artist. Abakanowicz developed an intensely personal language using her carefully woven fibres, and expressed a desire to live in harmony with the natural world.
“I am interested in constructing an environment from my forms.
I am interested in the scale of tensions that arises between the various shapes which I place in space.
I am interested in the feeling when confronted by the woven object; in the motion and waving of its surface.
I am interested in every tangle of thread and rope, and every possibility of transformation.
I am interested in the path of a single thread.
I am not interested in the practical usefulness of my work.”
Abakanowicz pursued a formal education in painting and weaving, graduating from the Academy of Plastic Arts in Warsaw in 1954. The censorship and restrictions placed on the arts started to ease in the initial mid-1950s post-Stalinist Thaw, and trans-media experimentation flourished. Opportunities for ‘craft’ or ‘folk’ art were particularly well supported through state-sponsored associations, and Abakanowicz was most interested in their expressive potential.
Living with her husband in a cramped one-room apartment, Abakanowicz used the studio looms of established artist and weaver Maria Laskiewicz to sculpt her installations. The improvisatory style of weaving without a ‘cartoon’ (template) shocked the critics when Abakanowicz first exhibited in 1962. However as soon as 1965, she was using her accumulated prize winnings to purchase her own studio.
Abakanowicz’s paintings of living organisms on draped fabric were presented alongside early weavings and industrial designs. The pieces carry the differing influences of Polish avant-garde developments in informal art (concerned with matter) and constructivism (spatial and geometric concepts).
Throughout her life Abakanowicz maintained strong connections to the natural world and its powerful undercurrents, stating “I see fibre as the basic element constructing the organic world on our planet. It is from fibre that all living organisms are built – plant tissues, leaves and ourselves; our nerves, genetic code, the canals of our veins and muscles… We are fibrous structures.”
Weaving with sisal (fibre from a flowering plant) and sometimes incorporating wool and horse hair, Abakanowicz’s textiles from the mid 1960s broke with the rectangular format of traditional tapestry and began to confront the viewer with curved forms hanging freely in space.
Abakanowicz’s love of natural forms began as a child, when she lived in her family’s 17th century manor house deep in the Polish forest: “Strange powers dwelled in the woods and the lakes. Apparitions and inexplicable forces had their laws and spaces.” Within her studio Abakanowicz was inspired by a collection of animal horns, hides, shells, cocoons, and other objects that she would occasionally weave into her fibres.
Baffled by the ambiguity of her work, it was an art critic that first coined the term ‘Abakans’, which Abakanowicz adopted to refer to her dense arrangements of three-dimensional pieces. In each exhibition, the works were clustered together in dialogue with each-other and the surrounding space. She referred to these predetermined placements as ‘situations’ and ‘environments’, into which she further introduced found elements. For Abakanowicz, this was reminiscent of the shelter she sought from the forest: “the Abakans are my escape from categorisation, larger than me, they’re like the safety I found in the hollow trunks of old willows that I would enter as a child, in search of hidden secrets.”
The hollow ‘garments’ of her works evoke a protective shell or coat, while the entwined fibres of rope suggest a chatter of activity along an extensive nervous system. Abakanowicz began to use the sisal from ropes to weave her pieces when other materials were less readily available. “Along the Vistula River one could find discarded ropes with their own history; I pulled out the threads, washed and dyed them on our gas stove.”
In 1969 Abakanowicz collaborated with the avant-garde film director Jarosław Brzozowski to create the film Abakany – a strange, lunar desert landscape based on the sand dunes of Slowiñski National Park. Planting her Abakans in the sand, supported by wooden armatures, the film captures the effects of the fibres being animated by the winds.
Frustrated at eventually being categorised as a ‘fibre artist’, Abakanowicz began to use other materials in the 80s, and her sculptures became increasingly figurative. A series of 800 forms entitled Embryology was made of combinations of fabrics and fibres bundled and bound into large organic masses. “The inside was soft, organic, alive – what is meant by these terms? They were fulfilling my need to create bellies, organs, an invented anatomy. Finally, a soft landscape of countless pieces related to each-other.”
Although Abakanowicz did not refer to herself as a ‘feminist’, her environments are emblematic of powerful regenerative forces – birth, life, vulnerability, ovulation, cycles, decay, nests, and woven wombs suspended in animate tapestry.