5 Fast Facts: Magdalena Abakanowicz

As part of NMWA’s #5WomenArtists campaign, impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930–2017), whose work is part of NMWA’s collection.

A large red, circular, sculpture of textured cloth hangs from the ceiling of a gallery.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Abakan Red, 1969, pictured in NMWA’s 2007 WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibition; sisal weaving on metal support; Collection of the Museum Bellerive, Zurich

1. The Horrors of War

When she was only nine years old, Abakanowicz’s beloved surroundings in Poland became a war zone under Nazi occupation during World War II. She witnessed her mother being shot in the arm by German soldiers. Throughout her career, she would be driven by a universal truth: “Humans could accomplish so much while also being responsible for their own fall.”

2. Breakthrough

After starting her career as a painter in the 1950s, Abakanowicz moved on to textiles, winning the Grand Prix of the São Paulo Biennial in 1965 for her first major body of work, Abakans (ca. 1960s)—large-scale, three-dimensional, soft sculptures. Using her memories of nature and war, Abakanowicz astonished her audiences with these “complicated, huge, magical forms.”

3. One with Nature

Natural elements, miniature and massive, inspired Abakanowicz. While making the gouache Fish (1955–56), she recalls being “provoked by an inexplicable inner process, a force only apparently understood.” Works like Bois-le-Duc (1970–71) evoke monumental tree trunks and may reflect her whimsical inquisitiveness as a youth exploring Polish forests.

4. Humanizing War

Continually influenced by the effects of war, Abakanowicz began scaling her work down to human proportions. In 4 Seated Figures (2002), part of NMWA’s collection, a row of androgynous figures appear hollow, exposed, and fragmented. Using rough burlap to portray a worn exterior, she evokes the vulnerability of victims of war.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Burlap, resin, and iron rods, 53 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 99 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Magdalena Abakanowicz

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Burlap, resin, and iron rods, 53 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 99 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Magdalena Abakanowicz

5. Public Art 

NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project, a public art space featuring contemporary works by women artists, featured Abakanowicz’s figurative sculptures from September 2014 to September 2015. Her work Agora (2004–2006), an installation of 106 headless and armless iron sculptures, is on permanent loan in Chicago’s Grant Park from the Polish Ministry of Culture.

—Olivia Lussi was the fall 2016 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and Adrienne L. Gayoso is the senior educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Gallery Reboot: Body Language

The museum’s newly reinstalled collection emphasizes connections between historical and contemporary art. Organized by the themes of the body, nature, domesticity, fabrication, and herstory, each gallery delves into a topic explored by women artists through time and around the world.

Male artists controlled the representation of the female body through most of Western art history. During the feminist art movement in the 1960s and ’70s, women artists claimed ownership over visualization of the body, and artists today explore the expressive potential of the female form. Artists Daniela Rossell, Mickalene Thomas, and Magdalena Abakanowicz use the human body to communicate powerful messages.

Daniela Rossell, Michelle Jacuzzi- Untitled (#7) (Ricas y Famosas), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 50 x 60 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC; © Daniela Rossell, Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

Daniela Rossell, Michelle Jacuzzi–Untitled (#7) (Ricas y Famosas), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 50 x 60 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC; © Daniela Rossell, Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

In Michelle Jacuzzi–Untitled (#7) (1999) from the series “Ricas y Famosas,” Daniela Rossell (b. 1973) delves into the lives of Mexico’s elite families by emphasizing the way popular culture creates and disseminates female stereotypes. From a wealthy family herself, Rossell had access to some of the most affluent women in Mexico. Each subject constructs her own image by choosing her clothing, pose, and setting. Compared to other subjects in this series, Michelle is dressed in more casual clothing while perched atop a rooftop hot tub. Rossell’s model suggests a duality, shown with an over-sized rosary and subtly visible underwear and tattoo. The model’s confident posture and luxurious setting underscore her wealth and high social standing. Rossell’s works explore notions of purity, sexuality, and power in relation to the female body.

Mickalene Thomas, A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y, 2009; Plastic rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on panel, 24 x 20 in.; Gift of Deborah Carstens; © 2009 Mickalene Thomas, Courtesy of the Artist and Lehmann Maupin

Mickalene Thomas, A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y, 2009; Plastic rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on panel, 24 x 20 in.; Gift of Deborah Carstens; © 2009 Mickalene Thomas, Courtesy of the Artist and Lehmann Maupin

Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971) creates images of African American women as a way to scrutinize and disrupt popular notions of female beauty. Thomas pulls inspiration from art history as well as popular culture. Her works are as likely to reference 19th-century painting as 1970s Blaxploitation films. A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y (2009) re-creates a portrait of her model, Fran, from a photo booth picture. In Thomas’s work, Fran’s face materializes from carefully placed rhinestones against a flamingo-pink enamel background. Thomas compares her use of rhinestones to the lustrous lip gloss women wear as “another level of masking, of dressing up.” Her work challenges the perception of femininity.

Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930–2017), a leader in the fiber arts movement, created a mold made from a real person, using burlap mixed with resin and glue for her work 4 Seated Figures (2002). Born in Poland, Abakanowicz witnessed her mother get shot after soldiers stormed into their home during World War II—an instant that that is reflected in these figures. The forms are presented as genderless, and they appear to have been stripped of revealing muscles, arteries, or cords suggestive of the nervous system. Although her figures were inspired from a personal event, the work encourages multiple interpretations and speaks broadly to the human experience. Abakanowicz said, “They are naked, exposed, and vulnerable, just as we all are.”

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Burlap, resin, and iron rods, 53 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 99 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Magdalena Abakanowicz

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Burlap, resin, and iron rods, 53 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 99 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Magdalena Abakanowicz

Visit the museum to see these works in the third floor galleries. Can’t visit in person? Browse #GalleryReboot on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for more collection highlights.

Madeline Barnes was the spring 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.