Who can you trust when all’s been lost? “Embodied Forms,” a modest but compelling retrospective of fiber, wood, and bronze works by the late Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz, raised this existential question and charted the artist’s way through it. Set in a niche at the gallery entrance, From the Anatomy Cycle: Anatomy 29 (2009) features a strange limb—a cast burlap arm, with a hand at each end, resting on a knotted, riven wooden beam. It reverberates with the memory of Abakanowicz’s mother, who lost her arm in 1943, shot by drunken German soldiers who burst into the family home. Abakanowicz’s sweet childhood vanished in a flash. From then on, she trusted only her intuition and the natural world of her childhood—the mystical forest where she played out her childhood fantasies. These realms nurtured a daunting body of work that, by turns intimate and monumental, speaks of her resilient spirit.
Each of Abakanowicz’s sculptures dwells within this psychic landscape, a charged space that relinquishes boundaries between earth and epic human themes such as freedom and loss, victimization and survival, destruction and resurrection. The juggernaut of tensions drives works such as Marrow Bone (1987), from the “War Games” series. Abakanowicz began this series in response to the politically and financially motivated denuding of Poland’s timberlands—once proud, muscular trees seized, stripped of their identities, and abandoned. She reclaimed cast-aside trunks deemed unworthy for lumber and gave them new life as riveting objects rife with metaphors of life and death. Marrow Bone (the title references the fatty and bloody life substance in human bone) consists of an amputated horizontal trunk fitted with iron casings at either end, knife-like metal projections protruding from their hollow cores. Just as the work memorializes felled natural lives, so does it sadly convey humanity’s seamless and mindless drift from innocent victim to brute aggressor.
The elegant warp and raw weft of Abakanowicz’s tapestries, made from hand-dyed unwound sisal rope, weave similarly unnerving metaphysical landscapes. Abakan Rouge III (1971, now in the collection of the MFA Houston), a jaw-dropping example, is a massive and provocative vaginal form, its rich red surface the color of fresh blood. The central slit bisecting this lush, knotty fiberscape equates the womb with the comfort of a serape-like blanket. It takes a moment to experience this roughened stretch of fibrous cloth as a slashed organ, hemorrhaging down a stark, white wall.
“Coexistence” (2002), another series of fiber-based works, consists of a cast burlap phalanx of mythical animal-headed creatures with human torsos. Standing mute like sturdy oaks in a forest, these hollow figures conjure forest spirits morphed from trees, moving through time, and then shedding their outer skins. Their surfaces replicate cracked, dried earth, yet they are softly modeled with life-like feet firmly gripping the ground. Stoic, vulnerable, and pulsing with inner life, they are close cousins to the “Anonim,” a bronze series of amorphous heads. Like the “Coexistence” figures, Anonim 2 and Anonim 3 (both 2009) appear to have been born from and then returned to an arboreal source. These blurred portrait busts sit on “columns” replicating desiccated tree trunks. Mottled, gnarled, and deformed by the ravages of time, these “petrified” souls are, like almost all of Abakanowicz’s creations, one with the natural landscape to which each of us must succumb.