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by Fred Stern
Magdalena Abakanowicz, "Confessions, Sculpture and Drawings," Oct. 15-Nov. 19, 2005, at Marlborough New York, 40 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019

The Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz has long pursued her own brutal vision of life in the modern world, where human and animal life is seen as hard, dark and subject to primitive powers. She is perhaps best known for sculptural installations that consist of throngs of rough-hewn, headless figures, an electrifying 20th-century expression of both political tyranny and existential angst. Now, she has installed an exhibition of her new work at Marlborough in New York City.

Born in 1930 to an aristocratic family that lived outside of Warsaw, Abakanowicz witnessed first the privations of World War II and then life under the communist regime. She began her career in Warsaw in 1956 as a painter, and in the 1960s gained attention for a series of expressionistic hanging sculptures made of fiber and textiles. Later she turned to metal constructions, making standing figures, backs, hands and heads. In the 1980s she worked in steel, and then began her bronzes. She has also made sculptures of stone.

Abakanowicz has consistently sought to make works that could find the power of the shaman in contemporary life, searching for an amalgam that encompasses myth and folklore as well as the contemporary world. "From the very beginning," Abakanowicz has said, "man has created myths out of his longing for the lost state of balance, for a prehistoric existence called paradise, a state without consciousness." Much of Abakanowicz’s work is suggestive of the oppression and cruelty she witnessed during her childhood.

The exhibition at Marlborough features seven large bronze figures, some sitting, some striding and some held within enclosures. A pair of works are like bare animal skulls, aged by time and presented on a simple base like an altar. These somber creatures could be, perhaps, idols (or their attendants) from some prehistoric civilization. Their anvil-like heads appear to forbid the formation of conscious thoughts, their otherworldliness evoking fear and astonishment, yet compassion. Their surfaces are dark shades of burnt sienna and burnt umber, patterned with the texture of burlap and dirt or marked with the artist’s touch. What’s more, the figures are hollowed out, like shells, usually on their backs but occasionally from the front, to dramatic effect. It is a profound visual encounter.

On the gallery’s outdoor terrace are three massive constructions called "Flyers," welded together of irregular patches of hammered stainless steel. These three works appear to comment on flight as both an emblem of freedom and an ominous danger from the sky, as graceful gliders or fearsome predatory creatures. Two Wings Flyer resembles some kind of jet-powered metallic hawk, while Big Wings Flyer, with its 17-foot-wide wingspan, is a primordial butterfly.

A cycle of 35 gouache drawings of massive faces round out this impressive presentation by one of the most dynamic art figures of our time. The bronzes begin at $60,000, while the large outdoor sculptures are $250,000 and $300,000. Works on paper are $12,000-$17,000. An illustrated catalogue is available for $25.

Abakanowicz is currently working on two major installations, one in Chicago and one in Warsaw. The Chicago project calls for 100 iron cast figures, each nine feet tall, caught in walking motion, each in its own particular configuration, to be installed on three acres in Chicago’s Grant Park. The visual impression of the final installation promises to be overpowering.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.