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All images:
Magdalena Abakanowicz
Hand-Like Trees,
1994-95. Bronze.
At Doris Freedman
Plaza (59th St.
and Fifth Ave.),
until May 1997.

talk city:
shaman of
the earth
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 for information). Suzaan Boettger is an art historian and critic in New York.