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5 Fast Facts: Magdalena Abakanowicz

Blog Category:  Artist Spotlight
Ten larger-than-life bronze sculptures of human bodies are installed in the middle of a city street. The bodies have no heads or arms, and are striding forward in five rows of two. While they are not naked, their wrinkled body-tight clothing makes no distinction between shirt and pants.

As part of NMWA’s #5WomenArtists campaign, impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930–2017), whose work is part of NMWA’s collection.

A large red, circular, sculpture of textured cloth hangs from the ceiling of a gallery.
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Abakan Red, 1969, pictured in NMWA’s 2007 WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibition; sisal weaving on metal support; Collection of the Museum Bellerive, Zurich

1. The Horrors of War

When she was only nine years old, Abakanowicz’s beloved surroundings in Poland became a war zone under Nazi occupation during World War II. She witnessed her mother being shot in the arm by German soldiers. Throughout her career, she would be driven by a universal truth: “Humans could accomplish so much while also being responsible for their own fall.”

2. Breakthrough

After starting her career as a painter in the 1950s, Abakanowicz moved on to textiles, winning the Grand Prix of the São Paulo Biennial in 1965 for her first major body of work, Abakans (ca. 1960s)—large-scale, three-dimensional, soft sculptures. Using her memories of nature and war, Abakanowicz astonished her audiences with these “complicated, huge, magical forms.”

3. One with Nature

Natural elements, miniature and massive, inspired Abakanowicz. While making the gouache Fish (1955–56), she recalls being “provoked by an inexplicable inner process, a force only apparently understood.” Works like Bois-le-Duc (1970–71) evoke monumental tree trunks and may reflect her whimsical inquisitiveness as a youth exploring Polish forests.

4. Humanizing War

Continually influenced by the effects of war, Abakanowicz began scaling her work down to human proportions. In 4 Seated Figures (2002), part of NMWA’s collection, a row of androgynous figures appear hollow, exposed, and fragmented. Using rough burlap to portray a worn exterior, she evokes the vulnerability of victims of war.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Burlap, resin, and iron rods, 53 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 99 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Magdalena Abakanowicz
Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Burlap, resin, and iron rods, 53 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 99 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Magdalena Abakanowicz

5. Public Art

NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project, a public art space featuring contemporary works by women artists, featured Abakanowicz’s figurative sculptures from September 2014 to September 2015. Her work Agora (2004–2006), an installation of 106 headless and armless iron sculptures, is on permanent loan in Chicago’s Grant Park from the Polish Ministry of Culture.

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