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Squadrons of the Anonymous

Review of Magdalena Abakanowicz, by Barbara Rose

Magdalena Abakanowicz, by Barbara Rose

The Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz has a small but not insignificant circle of devotees who, with a piety similar to that found among admirers of Maria Callas, claim for her a position as one of the century’s greatest artists. Many other critics respect her work, but marginalize her as “the best Polish woman artist” or “the best woman artist of Eastern Europe.” Whether her sculpture is of major and lasting importance or of primarily historical interest has been the subject of much debate.

Wisely, Barbara Rose, in her coffeetable monograph Magdalena Abakanowicz, does not shy away from the direct, emotional rhetoric so necessary to an appreciation of Eastern European art. The author of American Art Since 1900, Ms. Rose describes with energy the horrors of Ms. Abakanowicz’s life — the German invasion of Poland in World War II, the dawn of Polish Communism, the totalitarianism to which the artist bore firsthand witness — and the grandeur, passion, humanity and courageousness of the work produced in response to these experiences. Unfortunately, however, she does not compare Ms. Abakanowicz to anyone else, Eastern or Western, and she makes virtually no attempt to locate her in the spectrum of 20th-century art.

Ms. Abakanowicz expediently took up weaving in the 1960’s, when she was blocked by the authorities from exhibiting paintings because of the suspicious “formalism” of her expressions. Burlap and hemp became her trademark; much later, when she began to use metal and stone, she sustained the controlled plasticity she had learned at the looms. “Handling fiber, we handle mystery,” she has said. Her first mammoth woven objects (“Abakans”), shown in Sao Paolo, Brazil, in 1965, established a basis for the work of the next two decades, presaging “Backs,” “Heads,” “Seated Figures,” “Crowds” and “Kataris.” In these series, anonymous bodies in fiber or bronze, overwhelming in their numbers but appearing curiously helpless, are marshaled into beautifully ordered installations. Such later pieces as “Negev” and “War Games” are more abstract, and perhaps not entirely successful, but the discipline and sense of exalted purpose (and slightly overbearing humorlessness) never flag.

Like many other Eastern European artists, Ms. Abakanowicz maintains that her work is not about the particular politics of her country. She avoids the sloganistic tendency of Socialist Realism in favor of a humanistic, almost mystical language of revelation. It is clearly her experience of Poland, however, that underlies her peculiarly material view of the eternal dramas of human iniquity and isolation.

The splendid photographs in this volume, mostly by Ms. Abakanowicz’s close friend Artur Starewicz, document the full history of the work. We see the artist constructing, and then we see the results. Luxuriously, the book illustrates multiple installations of single projects, showing how different the effect of “Backs” in a museum space is from its effect when installed in a Polish river valley or in a mountainous region in Canada. Ms. Abakanowicz’s work dwarfs the viewer, and these photographs capture that imposing monumentality. They also reveal the meticulously regulated intensity of spatial relations and light that characterizes the installations.

This book will not significantly alter the reputation of Magdalena Abakanowicz; it is more a competent retelling of the received wisdom than a new vision. But Ms. Rose does give us ready access to the artist’s extremely varied accomplishments. Her readings of the work, despite occasional lapses into sentimentality, are lucid and straightforward, never reductive, and they are seamlessly woven into an orderly biography. And most powerful of all is the voice of keen empathy and emotional engagement that Ms. Rose brings to her exploration of these deeply felt monuments.