At Doris Freedman
Plaza (59th St.
and Fifth Ave.),
until May 1997.
by Suzaan Boettger
"Sometimes, when I leave my studio at the
end of the day, I think that after I close
the door, something will go on." Magdalena
Abakanowicz reflected on the animism that
seems to inhabit some of her figural husks,
her hand- and tree trunk-like columns, and
now her wolverine mutants. True, it's not
difficult to imagine their nocturnal
prancing a la The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
The renowned Polish artist was in New York
to install six of her soaring "Hand-Like
Trees" at Doris C. Freedman Plaza, (Fifth
Avenue at 60th Street) for the Public Art
Fund, and on Sept. 17 at Cooper Union's
Great Hall inaugurated the PAF's fall
series of "Tuesday Night Talks."
Michael Brenson, a critic who has analyzed
Abakanowicz's work closely, first provided a
suavely articulate overview of her
trajectory since winning the Grand Prize of
the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1965 (at 35) for
fabric and fiber works, to her mid-1970s
figural work, "embodying Polish life under
Communism and the experience of World War II,
" to her installations of stuffed burlap
boulders and the mini-forest of writhing
heliotropic monoliths that recently sprang
up on Fifth Avenue.
When Abakanowicz began narrating her
slides, her rapid reading and heavy accent
made her words almost undecipherable.
Gradually she eased into it--Brenson had
said this was her first public talk in New
York in many years--and when she
increasingly spoke extemporaneously, her
insights became evident. "My work has many
meanings, among them, the story of my life.
I escaped into myself, my possibilities and
imagination." Indeed, her "negatives of the
bulk of the human body" resemble her own
small, lean physiognomy. She wove tent-like
environments to enable her to "fold and
store them easily; they opened a door from
craft into art." Their interiors were "like
the warm atmosphere of darkness, and ways
to explore space." When she represented
Poland at the Venice Biennial in 1980 with
one of her arrays of 50 or more standing,
headless, virtually identical figural
shells, "Everyone asked--'What do they
represent? Auschwitz? Dancers? Urban
shoppers?' I replied, 'All of this--my
crowds speak about humanity in general.'"
Abakanowicz's work demonstrates an evolution
(devolution?) from themes of dwellings, to
humans, to the primality of organic growth
itself. Her as-yet-unrealized proposals for
"arboreal architecture" were "born of the
belief that the city must change....The
parks are full of crimes." To give
urbanites the experience of greenery she
designed tree-like multipurpose buildings,
covered by plants, and now Japan has
developed porous cement that, with
fertilizer, allows vegetation to grow in
and around it. "If the artist does not
become a shaman of the earth, he will be
rejected as a superficial decorator,
" she stated firmly.
Abakanowicz's strong idealism and forceful
speaking style suggest a productive
tenacity born of a defensive self-belief.
After showing a video of Butoh dancers
interpreting her work as undulating
protoplasms and austere "crowds,
" the Warsaw artist responded sharply to a query
about the impact of Communism. After
explaining that she got thread for her
first weavings by unbraiding old ropes,
she advised, "Limits are extremely stimulating.
When you have nothing, look closely at what
you do have and see possibilities."
Magdalena Abakanowicz is represented by
Marlborough Gallery, 40 West 57th Street, New York.
The Public Art Fund's 6 p.m. "Tuesday Night
Talks" will continue at Cooper Union (Third
Avenue and St. Marks Place), with curator
Mary Jane Jacob on Oct. 15, Krzysztof Wodiczko
on Oct. 29, and Barbara Kruger on Nov. 12
($10/$5 students, call 212-980-4575
Suzaan Boettger is an art historian and critic in New York.