The Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, who has died aged 86, could trace her lineage back to Genghis Khan. At least, that was the family legend. As a child in the 1930s, she had privileges that were soon to be destroyed by the second world war and its aftermath. Yet, despite her background, she managed to launch a highly successful career in communist Poland, eventually gaining an international reputation for her evocative textile sculptures of the human figure.
After starting as a painter in the 1950s, she began experimenting with various other media, from welded steel to textiles, and in 1962 she was encouraged by the weaver Maria Laszkiewicz to exhibit at the first International Tapestry Biennale in Lausanne. A few years later, she began to suspend pieces of roughly textured fabric from gallery ceilings, creating abstract shapes so idiosyncratic that she named them “Abakans”, after herself. 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 even wound such a structure around Edinburgh Cathedral.
By the mid-70s she had developed the imagery for which she is most famous – severed heads and headless bodies, usually made from sacking supported by a steel armature or stiffened with glue and resin. Many of these are simply the shells of human backs, with bowed shoulders and stunted limbs, seated in rows in the open air. Inspired by a remarkable variety of sources – from the silhouettes of Polish worshippers or Indonesian dancers to photographs of the victims of Auschwitz – they have been exhibited across the world, from the banks of the Vistula to Calgary and Llandudno.
Perhaps most moving of all were the bronze versions, known as Becalmed Beings, commissioned by the city of Hiroshima in 1992 in response to a petition signed by more than 6,000 local people. In this case the tragic associations are obvious. However, even in more neutral settings, Abakanowicz’s lines of subtly differentiated figures arouse a powerful sensation of shared experience.
She responded most strongly to the political upheavals of her native country. With the foundation of the Solidarity trade union, Poland entered a phase of reform that was temporarily halted by the declaration of martial law in 1981. Abakanowicz reacted to this repression by placing one of her headless torsos in a wooden cage, and, later in the same decade, she began War Games – tree trunks partly encased in metal, like artillery shells or the keels of submarines.
Despite their air of menace, these pieces of timber, collected on the artist’s frequent trips to the woodlands of north-east Poland, have a strongly anthropomorphic quality, as if they were victims as well as weapons. It is tempting to relate them to a range of experiences, from Abakanowicz’s trip to Australasia in 1976, when she was impressed by the ritual carvings of forest peoples in New Guinea, to her own childhood whittling creatures out of twigs.
She was born Marta Abakanowicz in Falenty, on the outskirts of Warsaw – her father, Konstanty, was a landowner – and grew up on her maternal grandfather’s estate 120 miles east of the capital. Her carefree, tomboyish life ended abruptly when German tanks arrived in the autumn of 1939 and the woods around her home soon filled with partisans. In 1943 a drunken soldier shot her mother, Helena (nee Domaszowska), causing her to lose her right arm. A year later, with the battle front rapidly approaching, the family sought greater security in Warsaw, arriving just in time for the disastrous uprising: Helena was separated from her family for two months as they fled the fighting.
Matters hardly improved with the end of the war. Threatened by the prospect of class conflict under the new communist regime, the family moved to the obscurity of Tczew, near Poland’s Baltic coast. Soon afterwards, Marta began her artistic education, first in Gdynia and then at the College of Fine Arts in Sopot.
Quickly tiring of provincial life, Abakanowicz marked a new beginning in 1950 by changing her name to Magdalena and returning to Warsaw. She continued her training, at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts, while supporting herself with odd jobs: labouring on building sites, giving blood and teaching sport – tall and athletic, she was a keen swimmer.
In 1956 she married Jan Kosmowski, an engineer, and soon afterwards began to develop friendships with survivors of the prewar avant garde, especially the constructivist Henryk Stażewski. While greatly enjoying the intellectual soirees and salons that Stażewski organised in his tiny flat, Abakanowicz vigorously resisted the geometric, abstract rigour of constructivism. Her early works were freely drawn, brightly coloured images of birds and fish, painted in watercolour and gouache on bed sheets up to nine feet high.
Throughout her career Abakanowicz sought to establish an almost mystical link between art and nature – either by bringing organic objects into the gallery, as in War Games, or by using conventional media, such as bronze, to represent biological structures. Striking examples of this were the Hand-like Trees (1992-93) and the models she made in 1991 for the construction of a new district beyond La Défense in Paris. Abakanowicz’s plans for immense tree-like skyscrapers clad with vegetation were never realised, but the designs were spectacularly displayed all over the world.
Abakanowicz’s sensitivity to natural materials can also be seen in modern megaliths such as the irregular granite blocks in Space of Stone, which she set up in Hamilton, New Jersey, in 2002. Since last year, Tate Modern in London has been exhibiting Abakanowicz’s large-scale Embryology (1978-80), a group of shapes that evoke nature in a variety of ambiguous ways. Though made from soft, stuffed fabric, they look like boulders, as well as suggesting body parts and even cocoons, as is perhaps indicated by the title. The work exemplifies the physical immediacy of Abakanowicz’s sculpture, as well as her sensitivity to nuances of texture, and her grasp of archetypal forms.
She is survived by her husband.
• Magdalena Abakanowicz, artist, born 20 June 1930; died 20 April 2017