Magdalena Abakanowicz – Every Tangle of Thread and Rope Review – A Wonderful Knitter | Art and Design

youThe scent is of warm sheep’s fleece, fresh peat and sisal. The feeling is to be outdoors in the woods. They rise around you: dark, menacing shapes hanging high, some branching like trees, others entangled with vines or opening their hollow trunks as if to offer shelter from the coming storm. An ancient forest, primeval, majestic, mysterious, and all created from wool.

Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017) was a sculpture weaver. What he did was so radical that it is still shocking today. He took the conventional flat hanging tapestry woven for thousands of years and remade it into three dimensions. His fabrics are vast objects suspended in space that can appear human (big heads, huge anatomies) or can be organic, from hills to branches, meandering spirals and lianas.

There are moments when you seem to be looking at a gigantic orange face, pierced by expressive eyes and mouth, turning slightly in the surrounding air; and then it looks more like a red planet, casting weird shadows on the wall. There are somber black tapestries that slouch like hearse coats or elephant ears.

The threads cascading from the surface resemble soft hair or stand on end like the fur of a wild animal. There are even times when this fascinating spectacle where the color of the weave seems to change from copper to silver to the deepest black as if the tapestry were somehow alive.

Abakan January-February 1972
‘Elephant Ears’: Abakan January-February 1972 by Magdalena Abakanowicz. Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

Abakanowicz was born into an aristocratic family of Tatar descent who lived in the countryside. His circumstances were almost completely reversed during World War II, and then under the communist regime. But the enchanted forests of her childhood were considered a neutral enough subject matter (almost folk art to some) for the censors to leave her alone.

In the 1960s, Abakanowicz was primarily associated with the fiber art movement. But she was always pushing beyond the established groups. Even her first weaves seem improvised (loom thought, she was called) without any preparatory design and forged from the textile directly into the sculpture. She saw fiber, she said, “as the basic element that builds the organic world… the tissue of plants, leaves and ourselves, our nerves, our genetic codes… We are fibrous structures.”

The breakthrough work on this show is Black, from 1966. The tapestry is still attached to the wall, and is roughly oblong in shape with a central leaf-shaped figure. But the fabric goes in all directions. Rough as a willow basket, rough as a burlap sack, coiled in glittering cords, woolly as the sheep from which it came. The entire fabric is an infinite variety of fibers, which ultimately materialize in openings and folds that remain free from the surface.

The sisal hangs down like the locks of a black-haired Rapunzel; here and there the linen warp is revealed, like the threads of a spider’s web. You can look right through it, at its bizarre topography of ridges, ribs, and overlays. You are not just seeing but entering this work.

Soon you could, literally. The artist began to hang the large Abakans independent of her, as a puzzled critic dubbed them, together in what she called environments or “situations”, today known as installations. One film shows Abakanowicz and her Polish contemporaries on a misty Baltic coast moving inside these monolithic sculptures.

You could walk right into the cylindrical shapes and look up, like through a canopy of trees, to see the light above. You could stand in the embrace of his vast, garment-like sculptures. You could bury your nose in its softness.

Some of this is still possible in tate modern. You can peer into the cracks and gaps, watch the ever-changing play of shadows, walk among the tendrils. And while we can no longer crowd ourselves into his larger sculptures, they exude an extraordinary warmth. Nor can I remember a lovelier perfume in a gallery than that of her carded wool and her troubled fleece.

Magdalena Abakanowicz at her loom, 1966.
‘We are fibrous structures’: Magdalena Abakanowicz at her loom, 1966. © Estate of Marek Holzman

Anyone who has ever worked with wool, regardless of the actual fabric, will immediately understand what an astonishing technical achievement this was. Abakanowicz turned the traditional warp in all directions. You even see it lying on its side in a play. He was capable of weaving different materials, tensions and densities at the same time, of uniting fragments without seams. A shaft of silver light in gauze thread shines through a gray sisal cannon knotted, for example, without any slack. I have no idea how it’s done.

Tate Modern has punched arrow slits into the corners of its galleries so you can always see what’s to come. A life-size photograph from the artist’s studio invites you into her world. Her words are written on the walls. The latest in a momentous series of one-woman revivals: Albers years, Natalia Goncharova, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Dora Maurer – the sample is cured with maximum sensitivity. Which is just what an experimental pioneer like Abakanowicz deserves.

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