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March 8 - April 14, 2001 at Grant Selwyn Fine Arts

by Kathy Zimmerer

The eerie bronze sentinels march in a quiet procession in Magdalena Abakanowicz’s new series of figures and figurative fragments. Early on in her career Abakanowicz was a painter, then she became famous for her organic textile reliefs that were expressive, monumental, and evocative of the human condition. Her use of natural materials was in response to the dire economic conditions in Poland, but her eloquent use of these materials imbued her textiles with great presence. Gradually, during the 1970s, these textile forms morphed into plaster figures covered with burlap, sisal, glue and resin, which had a depth and poetic sensibility.

In 1983, Abakanowicz first cast her work in aluminum, and made her first bronze the following year. To cast her bronze figures, she makes a prototype in styrofoam. The prototype is cut, cast in sections, welded and then the surfaces are refined by Abakanowicz.

In her early bronzes, Abakanowicz created diverse forms that still relate to her organic sensibility. In Katarsis (33 Figures), (1985) a series of large-scale bronze guardians march down the hill, abstract but still human. Those figures were embedded with a lingering presence that evokes ancient nomads frozen in time. Ancestor, from the War Games Series (1989), echoes a giant medieval weapon, but maintains a spiritual depth that responds to man’s inhumanity towards man. Atypical in that it is not even abstractly referencing the figure, this piece has the archetypal organic underpinnings that inform all of her work.

Abakanowicz’s work delves directly into the human sensibility. While mute, her figures resound with a raw emotion and power that is full of psychological tension. While many of her figurative groups are monumental, here she brings down the scale, as in the poetic Smiling Butterfly. All of her works recall classical Greek and Roman sculpture, and when fragmentary, like this head, they have a particularly evocative relationship to the remnants of antiquity. Cast on a long and slender vertical pole, the noble head floats through the air in a disembodied state. The bronze surface is roughhewn and expressive, and the features are strong, lending the head depth and personality.

"Sitting Figure on a Short Bench",
bronze, 65 x 40 x 25", 2000.

"Katarsis (33 Figures)", bronze,
106.3 x 39.37 x 19.69", 1985.

"Female Figures (6 Figures)", bronze,
72 7/8 x 20 1/8 x 14 1/8", 1998-99.

"Smiling Butterfly", bronze,
69 3/4" high, 2000.

"Smiling Butterfly" (detail).
Sitting Figure on a Short Bench has a whimsical air, as this sturdy headless figure perches on an oversized stool. The deep scratches that run through the surface of the figure and the missing arms and head counterbalance this playfulness. Abakanowicz’s enigmatic figures challenge you to question your own humanity.
The most powerful sculpture, Female Figures (6 Figures), lines up 6 strongly modeled figures who lack both their heads and arms. With their backs facing the viewer, this strangely silent gathering seems united yet fragmented at the same time. A feeling of emotional strength is conveyed by these figures, for they are powerfully built and monumental. Yet a deeper feeling of human fragility is underscored by their awkward but defiant stance.

Abakanowicz’s genius at gathering a group of figures and creating an eloquent whole is evident throughout her work, while her emphasis on individual personalities is stressed in their expressive surface textures and subtle poses. Her leitmotif of the human image is encapsulated in figures that exist in a dream world of her own making.