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Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Otherworldly Sculptures Are Captivating Audiences at Tate Modern

Alexander Morrison
Jan 5, 2023 4:00PM

Magdalena Abakanowicz, installation view of “Every Tangle of Thread and Rope” at Tate Modern, 2022. © Fundacja Marty Magdaleny Abakanowicz Kosmowskiej i Jana Kosmowskiego, Warsaw. Photo © Tate Photography. Photo by Madeline Buddo. Courtesy of Tate.

On the second floor of Tate Modern, giant monsters stalk the galleries. They are “Abakans”—sculptures woven by Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz out of sisal (the fiber from a flowering plant), wool, hemp rope, and other organic materials. These textile works, named after a derivation of the artist’s surname, hang from the ceiling like ghosts. When the Abakans were first exhibited in the late 1960s, they engendered shock, confusion, and rapturous acclaim. Nearly six decades on, their impact hasn’t waned. On view through May 21, 2023, “Every Tangle of Thread and Rope” tells the story of Abakanowicz and her Abakans as the artist transformed the potential of textile for generations to come.

Abakanowicz was born in 1930 to an aristocratic family of Tatar descent in Falenty, near Warsaw. When Nazi forces invaded Poland in 1939, she retreated with her family to their estate in a forest near the village of Krępa. Here, she immersed herself in what she saw as the powerful hidden energy of the woods, but did not escape suffering: In 1943, a drunk German officer broke into Abakanowicz’s home, and severed her mother’s arm at the shoulder with gunfire. Such experiences seem to echo through the galleries at Tate Modern.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Helena 1964–65. © Fundacja Marty Magdaleny Abakanowicz Kosmowskiej i Jana Kosmowskiego, Warsaw. Courtesy of Tate and Marlborough Gallery, New York.

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Two free-hanging cloth sculptures—Green Composition (1956–57) and Composition (1960)—reveal how, not long after graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Abakanowicz had to negotiate a challenging environment dominated by resurgent Soviet censorship. The aforementioned works, painted in a semi-abstract manner, were in her inaugural solo show at Warsaw’s Galeria Kordegarda, which was shut down by authorities for being “too formalistic.” Instead of retreating, however, Abakanowicz burrowed deeper into the expressive and spatial potential of her medium. In Helena (1964–65) and Desdemona (1965), wild patches of horse hair burst out of richly layered abstract surfaces, like creatures slipping through from another dimension.

A sense of fluidity and possibility manifests itself in the physical form of Abakanowicz’s works as they shift from rigid and rectangular to more organic shapes. Curved sculptures sliced open like carcasses accompany objects that remind us of the artist’s lifelong obsession with the natural world, as seen in her 1990s “Flies” series of charcoal drawings, and a rhinoceros head made in the same decade from burlap and animal horn. Meanwhile, a clenched fist formed from sisal brings to mind not only her mother’s assault, but also one of Abakanowicz’s central artistic preoccupations—human entwinement with other forms of life. As she once said, “It is from fiber that all the living organisms are built, the tissue of plants, leaves, and ourselves,” as quoted in the exhibition catalogue.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, installation view of “Every Tangle of Thread and Rope” at Tate Modern, 2022. © Fundacja Marty Magdaleny Abakanowicz Kosmowskiej i Jana Kosmowskiego, Warsaw. Photo © Tate Photography. Photo by Madeline Buddo. Courtesy of Tate.

Abakanowicz’s idea that different forms of matter are connected came to fruition with her Abakans. The term was coined in 1964 by Polish critic Elżbieta Żmudzka, who was unsure of how to categorize Abakanowicz’s “woven paintings,” and the artist would later use it to refer to her large, three-dimensional forms. These complex works are imposing, textured, and emotional, like vessels that seem to invite us to step inside and cocoon ourselves within their structure. Hung in close formations, they cast eerie shadows across the walls, just as the artist intended. In the film Abakany (1970), a selection of them are seen in the sand dunes of Poland’s Słowiński National Park, where they turn in the wind. If only they were moving here.

Increasingly, Abakanowicz’s carefully devised arrangements, or “environments,” as she called them, start to feel eerily familiar. Pieces resembling faces, jacketed torsos, and womb-like structures spread across the exhibition’s penultimate room like the figurative installations that would dominate her later practice. The main characteristic that separates them from us earthly beings is their stark coloring of red, orange, and yellow hues, which gives them an otherworldly presence. Another is their strong smell of sisal and rope, key ingredients in Abakanowicz’s practice in the 1970s. One work, Embryology (1978–80), resembles a pile of eggs or potatoes: Perhaps, here, the artist’s exploration of our connection to nature comes full circle, back to where it all begins, with birth and soil.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Embryology 1978–80. © Fundacja Marty Magdaleny Abakanowicz Kosmowskiej i Jana Kosmowskiego, Warsaw. Courtesy of Tate.

In the 1980s, Abakanowicz experimented with other materials, including metal. This side of her practice is mostly represented at Tate Modern through texts, photographs, and videos in the final room, creating a slight anticlimax. But all of it—from her crowds of headless cast-bronze figures to her tree trunks capped with steel—carries forward the meditative power of the Abakans, similarly probing at how we relate to our body and the environment. Indeed, these seminal works can be understood as precursors to installation art and influences on many artists active today, such as Doris Salcedo and her memorial-like groupings of suspended chairs and skin-like surfaces, or Haegue Yang, whose alien-like sculptures seem to derive from a planet not too far from Abakanowicz’s own.

Ultimately, Abakanowicz did not want her work to be too clearly defined. For her, the Abakans were a wordless visual language open to interpretation. These beings have the familiarity of friends and the distant mystery of lost ancestors, their secrets tightly woven into their bodies. Perhaps trying to truly understand them would be missing the point; maybe they just need to be absorbed and contemplated in all their monstrous glory.

Alexander Morrison
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019