Essay by Valerie Fletcher

Born to a family of landed gentry, Magdalena Abakanowicz was profoundly affected both by her solitary childhood and by the devastation of World War II. She learned to escape from loneliness and cruelty by taking refuge in imagination, but her imaginings inevitably reflected her world. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Poland, from 1950 to 1954, when socialist realism was the official mode, yet she preferred to paint huge gouaches of abstract plants and natural forms.

Encouraged by the master weaver Maria Laszkiewicz, Abakanowicz soon began working with natural fibers. In the 1960s, she created weavings of flax, hemp, horsehair, sisal, and wool. Her use of natural materials and organic forms was an expression of her resistance to the totalitarian regime and the strictures of socialist realism. Unlike many women weavers of that time and place, Abakanowicz rejected utilitarian concerns to create large reliefs and freestanding forms called Abakans: bulbous, flowing, organic, abstract forms hanging from a wall or ceiling. These works, with their densely textured surfaces that do not invite touch, are haunting and ominous rather than domestic.

After the popular revolution sparked by the labor-union movement Solidarity, socialist realism was no longer the dominant mode of expression. As other artists in Poland turned to abstraction, Abakanowicz became interested in the evocative power of human imagery, but implicit rather than explicit, as in her series of Garments that suggest standing figures by means of their empty clothes.

Although she worked for many years outside the official art system in Poland, Abakanowicz attained international renown. Her fiber works were exhibited widely in museums throughout Europe during the 1970s. The retrospective organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1982 brought her critical acclaim in the United States. Since then, her works have been exhibited and acquired by many museums and collectors around the world.

Figure on a Trunk, 2000

From the 1970s through the 1990s, Abakanowicz created many series of figure sculptures, all meditating on aspects of collective life and conformity. Starting with Alterations, she glued burlap sacking and other rough fabrics over metal frames and plaster casts of nude bodies. As demand for her sculptures increased, Abakanowicz had her burlap figures cast into bronze editions.

In some figures, the artist eliminated heads and necks; in others, the hands or feet and even the entire front or rear of the body, as in the monumental Backs of 1976–82. The largest works consist of regimented figures, from as few as four to more than ninety identical figures. Their repetition in rows evokes the dehumanization and anonymity of totalitarian societies.

In contrast, Figure on a Trunk features a lone human form, presented on a stage of sorts, as if for our approval, judgment, or condemnation. The anonymous personage appears to be a dried-up, hollowed-out husk—a mere shell or remnant of flesh, emptied of life and energy. Headless, the figure evokes an effigy, passively waiting for change and completion. The bench on which he stands seems stable, yet it rests on two logs that could roll out from underneath, suggesting a precarious balance.

Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.