Magdalena Abakanowicz review: So is that a nose or a testicle? | Art and Design

meThe very Tangle of Thread and Rope traces the development of Magdalena Abakanowicz as a textile artist from the mid-1950s to the turn of the century, beginning with designs for tapestries and jacquard punch cards for weaving, rows of leaf shapes, color combinations, and tests. for decorative fabrics, but soon expanded, like his art, into sculpture and installation art.

Born in 1930 into an aristocratic family, Abakanowicz spent her childhood in the woods and fields of her family’s estate and witnessed the horrors of war as a teenager. At 12, she saw her mother’s arm amputated by gunshots. The memory returns in a delicate and understated clenched fist, made of sisal in 1975. Becoming an art student in communist post-war Poland, Abakanowicz went his own way, negotiating the political, cultural and aesthetic constraints of the party line. , and managed to have an international career, even at times when she didn’t know if she would be allowed a passport until hours before she left.

Material warmth... Helena, 1964–5.
Material warmth… Helena, 1964–5. Photo: Pierre Le Hors/© Marta Magdalena Abakanowicz Kosmowska and Jan Foundation, Warsaw.

His oversized wool rugs, sometimes combining areas of fleece, horsehair, cotton, and artificial silk, demand that you get up close and see from afar. You are drawn in by detail in these woven mosaics of rough stitches, drops of horsehair, irregular knobby lumps, the shifts between light and dark, and the cuts between colors, materials, and textures. Though carefully crafted in gouache drawings and collages, Abakanowicz’s tapestries take on a palpable life of their own. These large-scale works are the product of a wandering eye in cramped conditions, when there is no room to step back. Just as these tapestries consumed the artist, they also consumed the viewer, their material warmth and earthy organic scent as comforting as a lullaby. So, too, its details and changes in texture invite and invoke a distant, almost preverbal intimacy, an almost primordial fascination, like you might feel sitting on a grandmother’s lap or looking at patches of moss and tree bark and things. that grow. among fallen leaves. They invite reverie and it is not surprising that some of his titles are female names, such as Helena and Desdemona.

Abakanowicz’s often closed-toned woven textile works, which he continued to make until the mid-1960s, are almost paintings by other means. More than decorative, they invite physical and psychological closeness. You might think of Abstract Expressionism and informal European abstract painting from the 1950s. Even the feeling of his time has become evocative of a past that is not your own and to which you can never fully return except in your imagination. But his work has a presence of its own, which is why the current exhibition is so jolting and moving.

In the mid-1960s, Abakanowicz moved away from the rectangle and began making oval shapes rendered as violently cut chasubles, later removing his works from the wall entirely, allowing them to hang and dangle in space. These forms often resemble huge heavy coats, hoods, and even split tree trunks, as well as ribbed and veined leaves, giant shells, and pupae. Begun in 1967, dramatically lit in a gray-walled gallery, these dyed sisal and wool rugs cast high-contrast shadows on the floor below them, giving them a sense of life and mystery. Arranged in the gallery space between hanging, split pods from which sisal rope spills like guts, these large forms are as enveloping as her previous weaves.

Use home materials… Abakan Vert, 1967–8.
Household Materials… Abakan Vert, 1967–8. Photo: Norbert Piwowarczyk/© Marta Magdalena Abakanowicz Kosmowska and Jan Kosmowski Foundation, Warsaw.

There are great things here, with their crazy flurries of horsehair and unstitched sisal rope, their careful tailoring and unexpected shadows, their cloistered interiors, their folds and outpourings, their sound-muffling silent weight and organic scent. Inevitably, we are also stopped by the increasingly evident representations of the female body, of the open lips, orifices and protuberances of the body. There are pregnant breasts and bellies, wrinkles and tunnels. As similar as they are to the garments, these dangling forms have become phantom bodies. In Abakan Red, a creaking bowsprit or extruded nose, slightly askew in some cartoonish mishap (maybe it was pushed somewhere it wasn’t meant to go) reaches into space. The longer I look, the more lewd and fun this shape becomes. Are those testicles hanging in the crease next to the nose, if it’s a nose? Nearby, a large, pleasingly misshapen ball of sisal, like a black cloud or rock, hangs from the ceiling. Standing below him, I thought of a thought bubble, a ghastly melancholy made visible, floating above my head for all to see.

One of the difficulties that commentators and critics of Abakanowicz’s work faced during the 1960s and 1970s was how to place the varied and multiform things he did. Were his hangings and textiles suspended from him art at all? Or was it craft or “applied art” or “fiber art”? Was it sculpture? Was his approach (according to Polish censors who closed his first exhibition before it opened) too formalistic? Critics called her a “painter on the looms” and described her works as “carpet creatures.” Later commentators have tried to see it in relation to american post minimalismand to Italian poor art. Louise Bourgeois once dismissed an exhibition that included Abakanowicz as “seldom topping decor.”

But for Abakanowicz it was always about the body, with sex and the difficult physical and mental situation. She denied being a feminist artist, although American critics defended her, and in 2009 she was included in the excellent 2009 exhibition. Bizarre! Art and the feminist revolution, who traveled from Los Angeles to New York. There is a revealing moment in Abakanowicz’s Tate Modern exhibition where one can look through a narrow vertical opening next to one of his suspended canvas works into Turbine Hall and get a dizzying, clear view of the similarly suspended fabric works of Chilean artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña. Both use homely materials, and both transform what might be considered remnants of quintessentially feminine production (knitting, weaving, thread, etc.) into an art that is both a material language of protection and protest, of swaddling and care, that envelops and the memory, since it is a celebration of a medium or means of production.

Abakanowicz’s materials gave her great flexibility, as well as having all kinds of symbolic and everyday associations, especially given what is still largely considered the feminized work of sewing and knitting. All of this is crucial to reading her work, although, in numerous later small works here, she was interested in much more than one particular medium. In a small, roughly built display case, animal horns are wrapped within a tangled nest of steel wire. More horns fill another noisy display case, and others contain puzzling and slightly unsettling relics, one cloaked in an old suit. A burlap rhinoceros head, reminiscent of a hunter’s trophy, hangs high on one wall.

In the latter part of his career (Abakanowicz died in 2017) took directions that I, and the curators of this exhibition, have chosen not to follow. He went on to make bronze trees and groups of headless bronze figures and flocks of birds in flight, and burlap beings that I find lugubrious and dreary with their supposed universality and humanistic overtones. For Abakanowicz, going into bronze was like going into production. The current show, which will travel to Lausanne and Oslo, wisely leaves all of this out and instead illuminates the core of what he did, with all its mysterious shadows.

  • Magdalena Abakanowicz: Every tangle of thread and rope is in Tate Modern, Londonfrom November 17 to May 21.

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