An Artist Who Re-creates Her Environments

IN 1990, Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz was invited to enter an architectural contest and submit ideas for the future suburban development of Paris. She had always been a nonconformist, and her plan seemed bizarre. What she proposed was a mini-city consisting of 60 high-rise buildings in the shape of trees.

"At the beginning of the 20th century," she writes, "such achievements of modern technology as airplanes, ocean liners, or American grain elevators inspired artists and architects. Now, facing the 21st century, the awareness of imperiled nature turned my attention elsewhere. The tree, endangered all over the planet, yet so important for its survival, became my inspiration."

The buildings would be 200 to 250 feet tall and 20 to 90 feet wide, and each building's concrete exterior would be planted with vegetation. Apart from its visual effect, softening the hard outlines of cast concrete, the greenery would help freshen the polluted atmosphere of Paris by taking up carbon dioxide and returning oxygen to the air. Each building would be equipped with solar and wind energy collectors so that it could supply its own energy needs.

Abakanowicz was one of 22 artists invited to submit proposals for a design competition, and she has been selected as one of the finalists. Whether or not she wins first prize, it now seems likely that two to six of her tree-like buildings will be constructed.

In her own way, Magdalena Abakanowicz is intensely practical. Like many other artists, she was lonely as a child, but in spite of major difficulties, personal and historical, she has succeeded for more than 30 years in making her artistic dreams come true.

She was born near Warsaw in 1930, to a rich, aristocratic family. Her surname derives from the name of a distant ancestor, Abaka Khan, a great-grandson and successor of Genghis Khan, who ruled over vast territories.

During childhood, Abakanowicz relied on herself and her daydreams for company. Quite early it became clear that, as the second of two daughters, she was a disappointment to her mother, who had very much wanted a son and left Magdalena to be brought up by servants.

"I had no companions of my own age," she recalls. "I had to fill the enormously long and empty days, alone, minutely exploring everything in the environment. Learning about all that was alive - watching, touching, and discovering - was accomplished in solitude.

"Time was capacious, roomy; leaves grew slowly and slowly changed their shape and color. Everything was immensely important. All was at one with me." Eventually she and her mother were reconciled, but she says she still feels more comfortable in nature than in society.

Lonely as she was, she was safe, but her sheltered existence was threatened and ultimately destroyed by the German invasion of Poland in 1939. After the communist takeover that followed World War II, her family was forced to leave its estate and move to Warsaw, where they lived in poverty.

By concealing her origins, Abakanowicz was able to go to art school from 1950 to 1954. Unfortunately for her, Polish art was at that time dominated by socialist realism, the artistic tendency favored by Stalin, who believed that the true purpose of art was to help build a communist society.

Always distrustful of rules, whether communist or capitalist, Abakanowicz offended her teachers, who reacted by giving her poor marks. Her first job after graduation was of the humblest kind: She went to work doing fabric design for a necktie factory.

After a few years, Abakanowicz took up weaving - partly because it was considered a minor art form - and she could be rebellious without forcing a confrontation with Poland's art establishment. But she could not repress her unconventionality. During the 1960s, she gained worldwide recognition for weavings that shock people even today.

At a time when tapestry was still the principal form of fiber art, and weavers seldom went beyond genteel decoration, Abakanowicz exhibited fiber objects that were not flat, not pictorial, and very far from genteel.

Her "Abakans" - the name was given to them by a critic - were three-dimensional tangles of sisal fiber, 10 to 16 feet tall and about five feet wide, which hung from the ceiling of the gallery as if they were the mutilated torsos of giants.

Like her tree-buildings, the Abakans embodied the central duality of the artist's work. She seems able to remember the unhappy past while suggesting hope for the future. The torso suggested by an Abakan might have been injured, which would be sad, but it might equally well be giving birth, which would be a cause for celebration.

Abakanowicz spends part of each year in the country, and the series of sculptures she calls "War Games" has arisen from the impulse to do something useful with material otherwise rejected by society. She finds tree trunks that have been cut down but not used as lumber because of their irregular shape.

She strips these unwanted tree trunks of their bark and then adds visual elements that can evoke strong emotions. The cloth wrappings tend to look like bandages, the steel sheathing could be the reinforcement of a battering ram or protection against further injury, and the blade-like steel projections could be used equally well in tools or weapons. Like so much else in her work, the sculptures in the "War Games" series can refer to the damage done by war, evoking pity, or to the human ability to recover and live a useful life after grave injury.

AFTER the Abakans, Abakanowicz is most famous for her arrays of human figures, often headless and limbless, made of burlap. She has also done groups of human heads made of bronze. When we consider that she has spent almost her entire life in Poland, it is easy to interpret these groups of headless bodies or disembodied heads as victims, references to German concentration camps or Stalinist repression of the individual.

But she herself disclaims that kind of simple political meaning. For her and for her more open-minded viewers, the burlap figures may indeed be victims of totalitarianism, but they may also be participants in a ritual dance in the mountains of Latin America or Indonesia.

Immediately after both World War I and World War II, it was common for European artists to reflect the horrors of war in their art. Before very long, however, both artists and ordinary citizens wanted to go back to business as usual.

Magdalena Abakanowicz has been unusual among today's artists in that her work faces both ways. She looks unflinchingly at human destructiveness, but she also looks to the possibility of rebirth. Her tree-buildings are only the most recent expressions of a lifelong hopefulness about the future.

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