Monday, December 22nd, 2008

Magdalena Abakanowicz: The Reality of Dreams at Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University

September 26 to Dec 14, 2008
40 Arts Circle Drive
Evanston, Illinois, 847 491 4000

Magdalena Abakanowicz Drawing, from the cycle Corps, 1996. Charcoal on paper. 42-3/8 x 32-1/2 inches. © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York
Magdalena Abakanowicz Drawing, from the cycle Corps, 1996. Charcoal on paper. 42-3/8 x 32-1/2 inches. © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York

Magdalena Abakanowicz is a contemporary sculptor renown for her groups of headless figures standing in rows and or striding as a mass, impelled by a compulsion that relates to the tragic elements of human instinct. She grew up in Poland where she experienced the chaotic violence of life during the Second World War. She first distinguished herself as a fiber artist and would later transfer a disturbing primordial organic sensibility, displayed in this earlier work, to surfaces of cast bronze. Currently she lives and works in Warsaw. Northwestern University’s Block Museum has arranged a compelling exhibit of her work, consisting mainly of Abakanowicz’s drawings created over three decades. These reveal a fascinating graphic firmament that the artist cultivated in conjunction with her sculpture.

In her drawings lines act like the ropes and woolen fiber used in her early woven pieces. These monumental drawings consist of interwoven lines made with charcoal or gouache that tangle and bind together to form strange organic beings. Forms allude to a tree trunk, a human torso, a flower, or an insect; they explore the ambivalence between nature’s capacity to produce the mysterious pulsating of life which is simultaneously haunted by the treachery of  death. This malevolent side of nature is made explicit in the work Drawing: Inside of Devious Tree (1988-1992), where the central trunk has sprouted flailing branches that embrace and devour all surrounding space on the page.

Throughout the exhibit Abakanowicz  repeats the use of egg shapes represently the swelling of a pregnant human belly, or the ovoid form of a flower or fly.  In the three drawings Body 81 A (1981), Body 82 A (1981), and Drawing from the Cycle Corps (1996) a monolithic unisex torso looks like a tree trunk, with neck and arms reaching beyond the limits of the paper like outstretched branches. Strange stirrings in its belly expand to a full pregnancy. As its title suggests the black body of Corps looks burnt and dead, even as of the intimations of life swell within it.  The Flower (1999) drawings depict black blooms that also allude to the female genitalia. Once again the human female organ that refers to the creation of life merges with a predestined tragedy and death.

Accompanying the drawings is a single installation of twelve burlap and resin figures from the artist’s Ragazzi series entitled Flock (1990).  These figures differ significantly from Abakanowicz’s massive outdoor sculpture Agora, her gift to the city of Chicago recorded in Agnes Masters documentary film that was shown in conjunction with the exhibit. Unlike the figures in Agora, these creatures do not tower or stride forward in a chaotic array of aimless aggression. They remain the headless bodies of young adolescents reaching shoulder height and standing straight with arms at their sides, like attentive cocoons in a pupal stage of development. Though more innocent and vulnerable, they seem to be doomed by fate.

The drawing series Faces Which Are Not Portraits (2004 – 2005) offers the vestige of a human face as a response to the headless figures that haunt the gallery. Egg shapes, echoed in other drawings, become phantoms of the human face. While the faces in this series reflect some of Abakanowicz’s features, they confront the viewer as depressed or terrified existential masks with hollowed eyes, sometimes expressing a deeply detached sense of withdrawal and inwardness. Their graphic power resides in the artist’s use of brusque strokes of black and white gouache that grasp at fleeting moments of intense emotion. The gestures are primitive and immediate, as though barely able to articulate and give form to the pain they bear witness to. The Faces are stark reminders that the exhibition’s title, The Reality of Dreams refers to the trauma and existential anxiety embodied by Abakanowicz’s life experiences and her disturbingly unforgettable symbols of the human condition.