In the Gallery

Get to know artist Magdalena Abakanowicz

A trailblazer who changed what it meant to be defined as a sculptor

Born in Poland, Magdalena Abakanowicz was one of the most important, radical artists of the 1960s. Tate Modern’s 2022 exhibition will highlight her evocative work as a sculptor – her towering fibre installations.

Below are key things to know about this innovative artist:

1. She was an unstoppable artist

Black and white photograph of Magdalena Abakanowicz at her loom

The artist at her loom, 1966. Photography Jan Michalewski.

She was ambitious and wanted to ‘explore, participate and be in the world.’  Abakanowicz was born into a wealthy aristocratic family but was forced to flee her home as a result of the events in the Second World War.

Despite the challenging political conditions of the communist regime and being a female artist, she travelled frequently (over 50 times during this period) to attend her solo exhibitions abroad. She established an international career in the 1960s and became one of Poland’s most successful artists.

2. She created her own ‘Abakans’

In the 1960s, Abakanowicz created striking sculptures that were unlike anything anyone had seen before. Named after her, and known as her ‘Abakans’, these were woven abstract three-dimensional shapes, hung from the ceiling. She saw her work as an extension of herself – her Abakans, for example, often resembled organic, bodily forms.

‘The Abakans were a kind of bridge between me and the outside world. I could surround myself with them; I could create an atmosphere in which I somehow felt safe because they were my world...’

With these, she transformed tapestry from a traditional flat surface to something bigger and bolder – a new type of sculpture.   This is the first time since 1975 Abakanowicz has had a major exhibition in the UK, with many of her most significant Abakans on display together.

Artist’s studio on Washington street, Warsaw. Abakan Round 1967–8 and Abakan Yellow 1967–8. Photo © Estate of Marek Holzman. (c. 1968)

3. Nature is threaded throughout her work

Playing alone in the forests near her home as a child, Abakanowicz would take in her surroundings. She was aware of the importance of our relationship with the natural world, which was threaded through every part of her practice. As an adult, she incorporated found materials from the landscape into her work, using materials from horsehair, hemp, flax and wool as well as dyed sisal rope from harbours.

Also in 1990, she was selected to develop a public project in Paris. After many years of research into architecture and sustainability, she created a large, living ecological architecture, which she named Arboreal Architecture.

© Fundacja Marty Magdaleny Abakanowicz Kosmowskiej i Jana Kosmowskiego, Warsaw Opening page and right: Stills from Jarosław Brzozowski and Kazimierz Mucha’s film Abakany 1970 35 mm film transferred to digital, colour, sound, 13 min 5 sec © Barbara Stopczyk

4. She was one of the first to create art installations

She was one of the first artists to create what she called ‘spaces to experience.’ This was a new type of artwork when there was no word for installation or immersive art. When, for example, her textile works came off the wall and moved into the three-dimensional space, it was a radical new approach. Her ambitious experiment with scale and materials had not been attempted before, and this exhibition is a rare chance to see many of these works hung together.

Photography Marek Zajdler © Artur Starewicz/East News

Magdalena Abakanowicz: Every Tangle of Thread and Rope is at Tate Modern 17 November 2022 – 21 May 2023.

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