Magdalena Abakanowicz Abakans  


Abakans are textile sculptures that appear like oversized human organs in space.

Even the tapestry as a traditional form of textile art, made from wool and silk, often enriched with silver and gold threads, plays with three-dimensionality. Although it initially retains its two-dimensional flat shape, it is flexible, because not only is it easy to handle and therefore very mobile, but its movement is generated by the flow of air, which allows the tapestry on the wall to sway easily, and gives it a new dimension of viewing.

In Abakanowicz's hands, the material and its relation to the body and human existence become the subject of artistic work.

Abakanowicz is one of the leading artistic personalities who have made textiles the subject of their art. She started her work with textile fabrics by producing tapestries in the traditional way, handwoven from natural fibres. After 1966 she began to redefine her material and the way of artistic approach, which since then has included natural materials such as hemp, horsehair and sisal knits.

Already during the first Biennial of the Tapestry in Lausanne in 1962, Abakanowicz showed handwoven tapestries, the surface of which that no longer had the relative smoothness of traditional wall hangings, but rather showed relief structures produced using knotting techniques. For the first time, the tapestry Composition of White Shapes showed a relief-like surface, which was creatively transformed from the knotted threads. The 200 x 600 cm work was woven from cotton by the artist herself.

The new approach to tapestry also represented a new approach to the art object itself. While since the Middle Ages weaving had traditionally been carried out by professional weavers, who made the work in textile according to a design submitted by an artist on paper or linen, now the artists themselves took on the manual work, and thus returned to the anthropological origins of weaving, as Aby Warburg, a Hamburg art historian, observed with the Navajo in the USA on his journey in 1895-1896. The entire design process - which did not allow textile art to be viewed solely as decorative or applied - happened in the hands and by the power of the artist's intellectuality. In this way, the artist himself has full control over the work, and is responsible for the craft and the invention of the work.

Abakanowicz developed this idea further and the surface of her textile artworks became increasingly relief and sculptural, visible especially in the so-called Abakans.

Brown Abakan IV, 1969

The term Abakan was, however, created by Hanna Ptaszkowska in 1964 during an exhibition by Abakanowicz in the Zacheta Gallery in Warsaw, in reference Abakanowicz's woven, relief, free-floating, three-dimensional works. The artist herself used the term for the first time during an exhibition in Zurich in 1968, describing her work created after 1965.

The background of the importance of textile art in Poland, and the development of particularly talented artists, was due to the state structures of the art schools, which controlled the visual arts because of unwanted propaganda. The classes of painting and sculpture were more closely monitored than those of the applied arts. In order to evade control, and to develop and realize their ideas more freely, the artists gathered more in the classes of textile work, for example.

The development initiated by the Polish artists had far-reaching consequences for the artistic handling of textile material. The woven textile was sculpturalized, with the sculpture developed from fibre and tissue. As a rule, Abakans take on an organic, biomorphic form, often of body imprint. Thus, the textile itself becomes physical and aims at our visual, tactile and related emotional experience. This is not to forget intellectual aspects of truth and epistemology, which should not be neglected in research.

In this material – which rests on the body like a second skin – the artist focused her gaze initially on the body, so that the material became the body or its imprint, in a manner similar to body movements in clothing, or how body shape by mechanical means signals body movement. Abakanowicz translated these aspects into sculptures such as Sitting Figures, which alone represents torsos with legs (1974-1979). Here, the bodies appear as body prints in a series of seated figures. This aspect is emphasized by the fact that the actual organic fibres, such as fascia or veins, are illustrated by means of the textile fabric and the fibre. The use of glue also creates a connection to the earth. Weavers in particular always emphasize that the weaving of linen, wool or other natural fabrics, which are directly touched by the hands of the weaver in the process of weaving, make a direct connection with nature, and with it the natural, and the reflection on the natural exist as a goal.

Seated Figures, 1974-1979

Abakanowicz pursued these ideas in her later works, such as the Backs (1976-1980; burlap and resin, each 660 x 580 x 680mm, Tate, London) or Androgyne III (1985; burlap, resin, wood, nails and cord, 121.9 x 161.3 x 55.9 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art). In the latter work, the artist placed the torso, which was again designed as a body print, sitting on a wooden frame without legs. It appears hurt and mutilated. Due to its close proximity to the body, the textile is a highly tactile and emotional piece.

The artist plays with this experience, and caused that the viewer reflects on the perceived body and then on himself and his existence.

Backs, 1976-1980, Tate, London

Androgyne III, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Abakan Brown IV, 1969 presented in Cental Museum of Textiles in Lodz (2018), - linen, sisal (photo Beatrijs Sterk)