At the entrance to Every Tangle of Thread and Rope is a vast black-and-white photographic transfer of Magdalena Abakanowicz (20 June 1930 – 20 April 2017) emerging from sinewy curtains of wool, sisal and rope. Holding a frayed loop, she is staring at us. On the adjacent wall, bronzed, shirtless men are marching across white sand in pairs, carrying giant, monochrome pelts draped over poles. Made on the dunes of Słowiński National Park in Łeba along the Baltic coast of Poland by Jarosław Brzozowski and Kazimierz Mucha’s film Abakany (1970), the 35 mm film was transferred to digital, colour, sound, by Barbara Stopczyk. Surreal, primal but also totally of its time, the looped film ends on a twisted red rope, planted upright like a leafless tree or a severed artery.
I am interested in every tangle of thread and rope and every possibility of transformation – Magdalena Abakanowicz
Inside, this exhibition stages a pivotal moment in Abakanowicz’s practice from the 1960s, when her monumental weavings – cascading with fibres saturated in rich, peaty tones – came off the wall. Splayed and folded, spliced and entangled, then hoisted onto the ceiling, these hefty woven sculptures established the Polish-born artist as a leading figure of the New Tapestry movement. Monumental and brave, they upended our preconceptions about craft or the handmade. They also represent the extraordinary triumph of the imagination over violence, war and communism.
Born in Falenty, east-central Poland, at the beginning of World War II, Abakanowicz witnessed German tanks enter her family’s estate. A drunken soldier then burst into her house and shot her mother’s arm off right in front of her daughter. In 1944, the family was forced to flee the advance of the Soviet army and ended up in Warsaw. There, Abakanowicz attended the Academy of Plastic Arts, where the doctrine of Social Realism – to be ‘national in form’ and ‘socialist in content’ – was strictly enforced. Initially, Abakanowicz experimented with textiles and weaving to avoid it. After graduating in 1954, her first solo exhibition – oil and gouache paintings – was to be held at the Ministry of Art and Culture’s Galeria Kordegarda in Warsaw in 1960 but was closed by authorities before it opened. Instead of defeating the artist, this propelled her deeper into her metier.
Interested in the expressive potential of weaving, she started using the studio looms of established artist and weaver Maria Laskiewicz (1891–1981) and began to produce large, experimental works. Instead of weaving to a ‘cartoon’ (template), she worked on improvisation, following the thread of her intuition. Finding freedom in this media, she also found opportunities as ‘craft’ or ‘folk art’ were particularly well-supported through the state-sponsored Association of Polish Artists, where Abakanowicz was a member. Laszkiewicz then encouraged Abakanowicz to exhibit her work at the first Lausanne Biennial of Tapestry in 1962.
Turning the warp in all directions, her strength was towering – her technical achievement staggering. Weaving with sisal (the fibre from a flowering plant) and sometimes incorporating wool and horsehair, in the mid-1960s, Abakanowicz broke with the rectangular format of traditional tapestry and began to twist, fold and suspend them freely in space. Twisting giant coils of rope like a hardened sailor, she was a master weaver, incorporating a host of natural materials, creating textures and densities all at once. “I see fibre as the basic element constructing the organic world on our planet… it is from fibre that all living organisms are built, the tissue of plants, the leaves… our nerves, our genetic code… we are fibrous structures.”
Otherworldly and idiosyncratic, in 1964 the art critic Hanna Ptaszkowska named them Abakans during an exhibition at the Zacheta Gallery in Warsaw. The artist then adopted the term; it made explicit the connection between her body and her work. “…Between myself and the material with which I create, no tool intervenes. I select it with my hands. I shape it with my hands. My hands transmit energy to it. In translating ideas into form, they always pass on to it something that eludes conceptualization. They reveal the unconscious.”
Folding, splaying and knotting these thick, weighty materials – the strain must have been enormous. We sense she was channelling the energy that would otherwise have been heavy to live with. At once, they express her defiance but also the enormity of her devotion to her art. “I see an artist as someone working between the unknown power of universal wisdom and between nature and man…. Who deals with certain energies that we see afterwards as the work.” In finding such a powerful tool for creative expression, she also enjoyed a rare freedom, stepping out from behind the iron curtain to travel for exhibitions. Describing her installations of monumental fibrous works as ‘situations’, today, Abakanowicz is considered a pioneer of installation art. In the same period, she created installations with large coils of rope, its knots and fibres reminding her of “a petrified organism” (in 1972, she wound a structure around Edinburgh Cathedral).
Brought together in the 64-metre-long gallery space of the Blavatnik Building (sponsored by a Russian emigre), Abakans loom out of the darkness. Suspended, as if supernaturally, some branch out like lungs, and others are tangled with hair around openings – as if the trees were living beings with trunks hollowed for shelter. An ancient forest, primal, majestic, mysterious – and all of it created from wool.
Wander between them; we are shrouded in another world. The light catches a thread of gossamer enmeshed in grey sisal. Some Abakans appear like oversized human organs in space. Frayed threads around openings suggest eyes or birthing canals. We walk towards the back of an ancient creature’s head. They hang, but there is no slackness. Creating what she called ‘spaces to experience,’ this was a new type of artwork that prefigured installation or immersive art. Each room has its energy; the dark, slightly cloying environment created by sombre shaggy tapestries, like the pelt of a wild thing, is replaced by a wondrous red disk, with a comet protruding from its stomach as if the wool is reaching for the stars. Behind this, enormous ochre faces with elongated mouths fringed with cascading threads look like giant reproductive organs: power and the feminine. We look at these sculptures and imagine the strength in Abakanowicz’s hands.
“The Abakan’s were a kind of bridge between me and the outside world,” she said, “I could surround myself with them; I could create an atmosphere in which I somehow felt safe because they were my world…”. Next is a video with the artist disappearing into, then reappearing from, her creations—a strange vision of an adult stepping into this world. Whilst one might read into the folds of these gargantuan objects as labia, we do not get a sense they are for birthing. These cavernous shapes express some primal impulse of wanting to hide inside something so fantastically terrifying no one would dare follow you. Unbelievably, through these weird, shaggy cocoons, the artist found an opportunity for freedom – both political and financial. “With my exhibitions around the world, I wanted to make people aware that my captive country still has a high level of old culture contributing to world heritage, and at the same time can speak about the current reality with a very personal strong voice of modern art. I travelled probably more than any other artist. So important was the dialogue with the whole world.”
Magdalena Abakanowicz – Until 21 MAY, 2023
The first time Abakanowicz has been exhibited in the UK since 1975, it is the latest in Tate’s era-defining series of one-woman revivals including Anni Albers, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and Natalia Goncharova. Upstairs, opposite Yayoi Kusama’s still sold-out Infinity Rooms is a different – often heartbreaking – retrospective of the little-known sculptor Maria Bartuszová. If Abakanowicz made giant vessels, Bartuszová filled small cavities inside balloons with plaster to create her universe of strange biomorphic shapes, often bound with raw string. An opening quote from the artist sets the scene: “A tiny void full of a tiny infinite universe.”
The diseases and stresses that undermine what is alive and already restricted by its lifespan.” –Maria Bartuszová
Born in Prague in 1936, Bartuszová spent most of her adult life in the former state of Czechoslovakia, where she made wildly experimental art at home, largely ignored by the communist authorities. Surviving on a small stipend of state support, over three decades, she worked in Košice, the second-largest city in Slovakia. Largely isolated and disconnected from the western art world, she created an extraordinarily authentic body of over 500 sculptures comprising small organic forms, public commissions, and works in the landscape.
Whilst communism might have represented the apparent restriction in her artistic life, in truth, it was the biological fact of her life and the prescribed role of motherhood which delimited her practice. Unlike Abakanowicz, who travelled far and wide, Bartuszová was largely restricted to the domestic sphere. And yet, it was in trying to balance making art with looking after her young children that she found her voice. “Maybe because I had so little time besides working on commissions and childcare,” she said in 1985, “maybe because of that, I had the idea while playing with inflatable balls, to blow liquid plaster into a balloon.”
The exhibition starts from a point in the 1960s when Bartuszová experiments with casting plaster by hand. Inspired by playing with her young daughter, she created soft, rotund shapes by pouring plaster into party balloons. Their pliable stretchiness released a fresh suite of artistic forms: bulging, hollow and egg-like, smooth and bodily. All cast in white plaster, highly refractive but easily marked, this became her signature material. Next, she used the gravitational pull on the weight of poured plaster to shape the final pieces, to push, pull and submerge them in the water while working. She called this system’ gravistimulated shaping’, and what emerged was biomorphic and orbital in nature.
Then in the 1980s, Bartuszová began using her ‘pneumatic shaping’ technique: pouring plaster over overinflated rubber balloons to produce a cast before allowing them to burst. Unfortunately, the bursting balloons caused the plaster shells to crack like eggs. Unlike the full volume of her earlier sculptures, these hollowed-out frames were heartbreakingly fragile. “I work vicariously with my hands, with the help of balloons and bent surfaces. Principles: touch, taut-full, taut-hollow, positive, negative, contrast, placing, multiplying of one.” It is not often I cry at the Tate, but standing before the central piece in this show, x I slightly fell apart. Nevertheless, there was a subtle, medium-sized work that somehow encapsulated all it was to be a mother and an artist. It celebrated all the cracks, the breaks, and the failures and cast them into the light.
MARIA BARTUSZOVÁ – until 21 April 2023
Top Photo: Nico Kos Earle © Artlyst 2022