Magdalena Abakanowicz (born June 20, 1930, in Falenty, Poland) is a Polish sculptor. She is notable for her use of textiles as a sculptural medium. She was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań, Poland from 1965 to 1990 and a visiting professor at University of California, Los Angeles in 1984. Abakanowicz currently lives and works in Warsaw.
Magdalena Abakanowicz was born into an aristocratic Polish-Russian family. Her mother, who was Polish, had roots connected to the Polish nobility of ages past. Magdalena's father, who was of Polish, Russian, and Lipka Tatar ancestry which dated back to the great leader of the Mongolian tribe Abaka-Khan, fled Russia at the time of the October revolution. The Russian invasion of 1920 forced her family to flee their home, after which they moved to the city of Gdańsk. When she was nine Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Poland. Her family endured the war years living on the outskirts of Warsaw.
After the war and resulting Soviet occupation, the family moved to small city of Tczew near Gdańsk, in northern Poland, where they hoped to start a new life. Under Soviet control, the Polish government officially adopted Socialist realism as the only acceptable art form which should be pursued by artists. Originally conceived by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, Socialist realism, in nature, had to be 'national in form' and 'socialist in content'. Other art forms being practiced at the time in the West, such as Modernism, were culturally outlawed and heavily censored in all Eastern bloc nations, including Poland.
Abakanowicz completed part of her high school education in Tczew from 1945 to 1947, after which she went to Gdynia for two additional years of art school at the Liceum Sztuk Plastycznych w Gdyni. After her graduation from the Liceum in 1949, Abakanowicz attended the Gdańsk Academy of Fine Arts, then located in the town of Sopot. In 1950, Abakanowicz moved back to Warsaw to begin her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, the leading art school in Poland.
Her years at the university, 1950–1954, coincided with some of the harshest assault made on art by the Soviet leadership. By utilizing the doctrine of 'Socialist realism', all art forms in Soviet occupied nations were forced to adhere to strict guidelines and limitations that subordinated the arts to the needs and demands of the State. Realist artistic depictions based on the national 19th-century academic tradition was the only the form of artistic expression advocated by in Poland at the time. The Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, being the most important artistic institution in Poland, came under special scrutiny from the Ministry of Art and Culture, which administered all major decisions in the field at the time.
Following her education at the Academy, Abakanowicz began to produce her first artistic works. Due to the fact that she spent most of her academic life moving from place to place, much of her earlier artwork was lost or damaged, with only a few, delicate plant drawings surviving. Between 1956 to 1959, she produced some of her earliest known works; a series of large gouaches and watercolors on paper and sewn-together linen sheets. These works, described as being 'biomorphic” in composition, depicted imaginary plants, birds, exotic fish, and seashells,among other biomorphic shapes and forms. Joanna Inglot wrote in the The Figurative Sculpture of Magdalena Abakanowicz about these early works: “[they] pointed to Abakanowicz’s early fascination with the natural world and its processes of germination, growth, blooming, and sprouting. They seem to capture the very energy of life, a quality that would become a constant feature of her art.”
The 1960s saw some of the most important works produced during Abakanowicz's career. In 1967, she began producing gigantic three-dimensional fiber works called Abakans. These works would secure her place in the art world as one of the great artists of the time and influence all of her work she has produced since.
Each Abakan is made out of woven material using Abakanowicz's own technique. The material used for many of these pieces was found, often collecting sisal ropes from harbors, untwining them into threads and dying them. Hung from the ceiling, Abakans reach sizes as large as thirteen feet with sometimes only a few inch clearance from the ground.
During the 1970s, and into the 1980s, Abakanowicz changed medium and scale; she began a series of figurative and non-figurative sculptures made out of pieces of coarse sackcloth which she sewed and pieced together and bonded with synthetic resins. These works became more representation than previous sculptures but still retain a degree of abstraction and ambiguity. In 1974-1975 she produced sculptures called Alterations, which were twelve hollowed-out headless human figures sitting in a row. From 1973–1975 she produced a series of enormous, solid forms reminiscent of human heads without faces called Heads. From 1976-1980 she produced a piece call Backs, which was a series of eighty slightly differing sculptures of the human trunk.
In 1986-87 she created a series of fifty standing figures called The Crowd I. She also began to once again work around organic structures, such as her Embryology series, which consisted of several dozen soft egg-like lumps varying in size. These were dispersed round an exhibition room at the Vienna Biennial in 1980.
These humanoid works of the 1970s and 1980s were centered around human society and nature as a whole and its condition and position in modern world. The multiplicity of the human forms represents confusion and anonymity, analyzing an individual's presence in a mass of humanity. These works have close connections to Abakanowicz's life living in a Communist regime which repressed individually creativity and intellect in favor of the collective interest. These works also contrast with her earlier Abakan series, which were individually powerful pieces, whereas the figurative sculptures lost their individuality in favor of multiplicity.
One of Abakanowicz's most unusual works is titled War Games, which is a cycle of monumental structures made up of huge trunks of old trees, with their branches and bark removed. Partly bandaged with rags and hugged by steel hoops, these sculptures are placed on lattice metal stands. Like the name of the cycle implies, these sculptures have a very militaristic feel to them, as they have been compared to artillery vehicles. During the 1990s Abakanowicz was also commissioned to design a model of an ecologically-oriented city. She has also choreographed dance.
Abakanowicz's most recent work has included a project called Agora, which is a permanent installation located at the southern end of Chicago's Grant Park, next to the Roosevelt Road Metra station. It consists of 106 cast iron figures, each about nine feet tall. All the figures are similar in shape, but different in details. The artist and her three assistants created models for each figure by hand, and the casting took place from 2004 to 2006. The surface of each figure resembles a tree bark or wrinkled skin. The work creates a feeling of crowdedness, hence the name "agora". Furthermore, all the bodies end at the torso, giving them an eerie, anonymous look.