NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project: Magdalena Abakanowicz

Blog Category:  NMWA Exhibitions
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.

To honor Magdalena Abakanowicz (b.1930) on her 84th birthday, NMWA anticipates the upcoming public installation of her work on New York Avenue for one year beginning this September, as the third artist in the New York Avenue Sculpture Project. Groups of her signature monumental headless human figures, accompanied by flocks of simplified bird forms in flight, will fill the median to create a haunting, dynamic scene of masses in motion.

Tall, standing, bronze sculptures that appear to be armless and headless human figures mid-stride.
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Walking Figures (group of 10), 2009; Bronze, each approximately 106 1/4 x 35 3/8 x 55 1/8 in.; All images © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York

Viewers can often be most intrigued by artwork that juxtaposes dueling elements within a single form. This ambiguity—a “push-pull” sensation—makes it difficult for audiences to ascribe a definitive meaning to the work. They are driven to contemplate and more fully engage with the art in order to fix on a personal interpretation.

Abakanowicz’s large-scale figurative sculptures achieve this alluring duality, providing the viewer both a listless crowd and static memorial. With firsthand experience of the traumas of WWII in Poland as a child, and as a leader of the fiber arts movement of the 1960s, the artist communicates her sensibilities of loss and creation through these zombie-like forms.

Four androgynous figures rendered in stiffened, brown burlap sit atop vertical, rectangular metal frames. They lack necks, heads, lower arms, and clothing, and their upper torsos slump slightly forward. The burlap’s color and bumpy texture evoke bark and mummy wrappings.
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

A NMWA collection highlight, 4 Seated Figures (2002), currently on view in the Rose Benté Lee Sculpture Gallery, exemplifies these strangely seductive tensions in her work. The burlap-and-iron figures, appearing to be reconstructed from shed human skin, are halting yet enticing, solid yet empty, animated yet frozen, delicate yet heavy, and somber yet hopeful still.
These crumbling representations of the human body also attest to the limitations and uncertainties of the human experience—in our lives many things remain unknowable, inconceivable, and incomplete. The presence of Abakanowicz’s enigmatic figures on New York Avenue, in the midst of the District’s commuters and visitors, gives viewers a reason to pause and reflect on the inherent ambiguity of their own journeys.

Read more about the upcoming exhibition, on view September 27, 2014–September 27, 2015.

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