Embodied Forms


Magdalena Abakanowicz, 13 Coexistence Figures, 2002. Burlap, dimensions variable. Courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York.

Casts of dried mud dislodged whole from the body, or mummified fragments: Embodied Forms, the first exhibition dedicated to the work of Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz since her death last year at 86, welcomes us with arms, formed or partially formed up to the elbow, from resin-stiffened burlap (From the Anatomy Cycle: Anatomy 21, 29 & 32, 2009). Sitting atop wood and steel supports behind a wall of glass, the museum-display atmosphere wavers somewhere between anthropological and archaeological—suggestive either way of objects which were not born sculpture. 

One might read these as amputated body parts, and learning of Abakanowicz’s life one might be tempted to: she watched as her mother’s right arm was shot off one night in 1943 by drunk German soldiers who invaded her family’s estate in the Polish countryside. Her mother was later separated from the family for two months as they fled the fighting. Abakanowicz’s family, who had been extremely wealthy and of noble descent, lost everything during the WWII occupation of Poland and its subsequent Soviet takeover. Her fractured forms are inevitably inflected with this history.

Abakanowicz’s series of Backs, of which she installed as many as eighty together, is represented here by Figure in Iron House (1989 – 90)—one hollow, headless, burlap back is curled over in prayer or abjection inside a cage-like cube of iron. The back is like a skin shed and crawled out of, or perhaps a carapace grown to protect this soft thing of life, as the “cage” might alternately describe a space of sacredness or safekeeping.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Abakan Rouge III, 1971. Sisal weaving, 127 × 78 3/4 inches. Courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York.

Headless, armless, and backless, a group of five Standing Figures from 2000 are cast in bronze, but retain a powerfully haptic appeal—their wrinkled, sagging skin reminiscent of the leathery, bog-preserved bodies unearthed in Northern Europe, having lain intact for thousands of years. Although these irresistible associations—with mummies, shells, and bog bodies—underscore the remarkable endurability of living flesh and form, this is counterweighed by the implied suddenness of violent disfigurement; and by the apparent frailty, despite their material, of the starving, dejected bronze figures whose skin hangs thinly from their ribs.

Equally irresistible is a mention of the Francis Bacon prints cannily on view in Marlborough’s adjoining gallery space: many of Bacon’s lumpen, muscular, distorted figures are also missing heads, arms, torsos. But Abakanowicz’s partial humans feel much less violently fractured. Two of her burlap arm sculptures curl up next to each other like cats; another grows a new hand where an arm was severed; her Standing Figures are patient as tree trunks. Compared with Bacon’s torqued and tortured bodies, these are quieter echoes or husks of beings.

Abakanowicz’s preference for incompleteness may have subversive roots: Social Realism was the mandated style while she was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, and it was a source of great pain that her teacher insisted, class after class, upon erasing the excess lines that she would layer into her drawings, relishing the discovery of emergent form.

Female students were required to take textile classes, and seeing here an opportunity to work more abstractly and with greater freedom, it was with these traditionally non-sculptural materials that Abakanowicz began to express her vision. In the 60s, she started to make what were called “Abakans,” monumental woven sculptural forms, some over 15 feet tall, made from unraveled and dyed sisal fibers and hung from the ceiling. The novelty of these non-decorative, non-functional weavings would decisively announce her presence as in internationally notable artist. 

Two of these remarkable sculptures make an appearance in the show: Abakan Rouge III (1971) and an untitled tapestry in five parts (1980 – 83). The first, a deep red, curls back at the edges like a dried leaf or cocoon, and puckers at the center with a long, vaginal slit. Weighty and monumental, it belies the delicacy and smallness of these things. Across the gallery, a rusty orange untitled tapestry overwhelms the body like a Serra steel slab, but offers in contrast the warmth of its material. Its surface is a landscape of ridged edges, slits and folds, and densely woven, mottled patches. It adds onto itself, overlapping and adjoining, improvising its curved and erratic form as it progresses. That Abakanowicz lent these objects her own name claims them as mystical proxies of herself, both incomplete and excessive: a bold assertion of selfhood within the prevailing collectivism.

The crowd, a major theme in Abakanowicz’s work, reflects her abhorrence for the inhuman cruelty made possible by group thinking or statistical conceptions of humanity. She worked mostly in multiples when creating these figures, and on exhibit here is a relatively small series of 13 burlap Coexistence figures from 2002. They stand to attention like an army of zombies, or a new species of being encountered in the woods, their bird heads quietly regarding you (one thinks of the bird-headed gods of Egyptian mythology). An extra layer of burlap hangs over their shoulders and chest like the layered habit of a priest or monk. But does this suggest orthodoxy or mysticism?

The diversity of head shapes asserts each Coexistence figure as a unique being, despite the group’s army-like configuration and uniform appearance. This variety invites closer scrutiny, and each body is found to be unique in its posture and character: we can speculate that a figure is proud, attentive, uncertain, timid. Here, this dynamic of difference-within-conformity is clearly the point, but subtler variations can be found even amongst Abakanowicz’s more apparently homogenous groupings, such as Standing Figures. One suspects that this inevitable result of working by hand, one figure at a time, may have sustained her practice of creating multiples. We see the individual quivering within the muscular pull of the crowd; while archetypal form can fortify, offering the structure of sameness, Abakanowicz denies this structure its dangerous tendency to subsume individual complexity.

In 1989, Abakanowicz began collecting irregular tree trunks deemed unfit for lumber from the woods of north-east Poland. She removed their bark and branches with an axe and chainsaw, as if in preparation for ritual. She then bandaged them with burlap rags, and hugged iron sheets round their forms to create improvised appendages. She titled this series “War Games,” and three of these tree-trunk-scale sculptures—perhaps the most powerfully ambivalent of her entire oeuvre—are in the show, propped up on iron supports. In Errant (1989 – 90), a cylindrical iron casing, tapered at one end like a dull fin, holds a thick pole of thinly-whittled logs, which emerge from its mouth like cannon fodder, strapped together and heavily bandaged. What appears confrontational and artillery-like must also be deemed reparative, almost redemptive.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Untitled, 1980-1983. Sisal weaving (tapestry in five parts) 157 1/2 × 433 1/8 in. Courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York.

The titling of this series, while apparently explicit, does not seem intended to influence our reading. Attached to such insistently ambivalent objects, the war games in question might instead be those that encourage ideological simplifications—those cages offering the convenience of certainty and stability. One can only war with an “other” whose complexity is diminished, an individual flattened into an enemy-shaped thing. Abakanowicz was deeply impacted by ritual objects and their tangible power. She travelled in 1976 to New Guinea, Celebes, Bali, Java, Thailand and Sumatra, describing these cultures as “the sources of energy.” Remaining always charged with the particular lyricism of paradox—which in Jungian mythos is the space of divine presence beyond duality—her own work achieves a similar magic, suspending those who look closely in a state of generative potential.


Jonelle Mannion

JONELLE MANNION is a writer living in Brooklyn.