Magdalena Abakanowicz, the Polish sculptor whose lyrical art explored the stress of political regimes on individuals and redefined how contemporary artists portray the human body, died yesterday in Warsaw, where she had lived for the majority of her life. She was 86.
In the years following World War II, Abakanowicz came up with a visual language that was unlike that of her European colleagues, many of whom were inclined toward the Pop-inflected use of commercial imagery and, later, conceptually rigorous objects. Her formalist sculptures relied on rumpled, crumpled, and distressed surfaces that became metaphors for the effects of violence on human skin and land turned up by bombings and battles.
Abakanowicz burst onto the contemporary art scene in the early ’60s with a series of sculptures known as the “Abakans.” Working on a monumental scale (some were more than 15 feet tall), she hung large pieces of sisal, a type of fiber, from the ceiling, or pinned them to the wall, and arranged them in dramatic installations that recall carcasses hung by meat hooks in butcheries. Though they were briefly met with resistance from critics who expected young artists to work with a Pop aesthetic, the “Abakans” brought Abakanowicz mass acclaim. When they were shown at the 1967 Bienal de São Paulo, they won her the festival’s Golden Medal and established her reputation as one of Poland’s most important artists. (Some are currently on view in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Making Space,” which focuses on abstraction made by women in the ’60s and ’70s.)
During the ’70s, through a cycle of work known as “Alterations,” Abakanowicz shifted into a more figural style. She created groups of figures made of burlap that were often hollowed and bent over, as if casting their heads down in shame—if they had heads. Many of these figures were missing body parts, like bodies that had been dismembered or decapitated and were just alive enough to emote ever so slightly.
Deeply sad but also immediately engaging, the “Alterations” works climaxed in Embryology (1978–80), which, although entirely abstract, was related to the figurative works by its materials. The large sculpture was shown at the 1980 Venice Biennale and was entirely composed of egg-shaped burlap pieces. “With impressive continuity it testifies to man’s evolving sense of reality and fulfills the necessity to express what cannot be verbalized,” Abakanowicz said of the work.
It is not difficult to imagine the eggs as a metaphor for rebirth since, for the whole of her life, Abakanowicz tried to overcome her own traumatic childhood. Born to aristocratic parents near Warsaw in 1930, Abakanowicz (whose name at birth was Marta Abakanowicz) witnessed some of the darkest moments in Poland’s history. In 1943, for example, at around the height of World War II, drunken German soldiers shot her mother in the arm. (Her mother survived.) Violence surrounded Abakanowicz and continued to permeate her work for the entirety of her career. Despite being traumatized by the war, she went on to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw from 1950 to 1954.
As Abakanowicz accumulated accolades, her work grew increasingly ambitious. In the ’80s, her “War Games” sculptures brought her work to new conceptual heights. For these works, she took large tree trunks and applied industrial materials to them, making the wood pieces appear like bandaged wounds. These monumental works were inspired by Abakanowicz’s travels to faraway places, such as New Guinea and Bali, but they still carried with them her experience of the war.
In the last few decades of her life, Abakanowicz received offers to create large-scale outdoor commissions. She wound up producing works for Washington, D.C.’s New York Avenue, Chicago’s Grant Park, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s rooftop, among other sites. One of her most ambitious works of the kind, planned for Paris’s La Défense, was never constructed, but Abakanowicz would go on to produce memorials to the victims of Hiroshima, among other monumental public works.
Abakanowicz’s work has been a touchstone for many artists. Her influence is evident in the work of artists working with tragedy and violence, notable among them Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo, whose work similarly uses materials that mimic human skin. Consider, too, the Algerian artist Kader Attia, whose famed installation Ghost (2007) features rows of aluminum-foil people sitting cross-legged with their heads bent down, in what may even be an allusion to Abakanowicz’s work.
Throughout her career, Abakanowicz continued to search what she believed was a universal truth—that humans could accomplish so much while also being responsible for their own fall. “We are finally still questioning our own existence, the problem of our existence,” she told the New York Times Magazine in 1992, “because this is the greatest question and the greatest mystery—existence and sense or non-sense, the extraordinary power of man and his extraordinary weakness.”