Every Tangle of Thread and Rope traces Magdalena Abakanowicz’s development as a textile artist from the mid 1950s until the late century, beginning with designs for tapestries and jacquard punched cards for weaving, rows of leaf-shapes, colourways and tryouts for decorative fabrics, but soon expands, as did her art, into sculpture and installation art.
Born in 1930 to an aristocratic family, Abakanowicz spent her childhood in the forests and fields of her family’s country estate, and witnessed the horrors of war in her teens. At 12, she saw her mother’s arm severed by gunfire. The memory returns in a delicate, understated clenched fist, made from sisal in 1975. Becoming an art student in postwar communist Poland, Abakanowicz followed her own path, negotiating the political, cultural and aesthetic strictures of the party line, and managed to have an international career, even at times when she didn’t know if she would be allowed a passport until hours before she travelled.
Her very large woollen wall hangings, sometimes combining areas of fleece, horsehair, cotton and artificial silk, demand you get up close as well as see from afar. The detail sucks you into these the woven patchworks of rough stitching, gouts of horsehair, jaggedy, knotty lumps, the shifts between light and dark and the shearings between colours, materials and textures. Although carefully worked-out in gouache drawings and collages, Abakanowicz’s wall hangings take on a palpable life of their own. These large-scale works are the product of a roving eye in cramped conditions, when there’s no room to step back. Just as these hangings consumed the artist, they consume the viewer, too, and their material warmth and earthy organic smell are as comforting as a lullaby. So, too, their details and shifts in texture invite and invoke a distant, almost pre-verbal intimacy, an almost primordial fascination, such as you might feel sitting on a grandmother’s lap or staring at patches of moss and tree bark, and things growing among fallen leaves. They invite reverie and it is little wonder some of their titles are female names, like Helena and Desdemona.
Abakanowicz’s often close-toned woven textile works, which she continued to make until the mid-1960s, are almost paintings by other means. More than decorative, they invite physical and psychological closeness. You might think of abstract expressionism and of informal European abstract painting of the 1950s. Even the feel of their times has become evocative of a past that isn’t your own and which can never be wholly returned to except in the imagination. But her work has a presence that’s all her own, which is why the current exhibition has such a jolt and is so affecting.
During the mid 1960s, Abakanowicz moved away from the rectangle and began making rendered oval shapes like violently slit chasubles, and then moved her works off the wall altogether, allowing them to hang and droop in space. These forms often resemble huge lumbering coats, cowls and even split tree-trunks, as well as veined and ribbed leaves, gigantic husks and pupae. These dyed sisal and wool hangings, begun in 1967, dramatically lit in a gallery of grey walls, cast high-contrast shadows on the floor beneath them, giving them a sense of life and mystery. Arranged in the gallery space among hanging, splitting pods from which sisal rope spills out, like guts, these large forms are as enveloping as her earlier weavings.
There are great things here, with their mad flurries of horsehair and unpicked sisal rope, their careful tailoring and unexpected shadows, their cloistered interiors, their infoldings and outpouchings, their hushed, sound-dampening weight and organic scent. Inescapably, we are also arrested by the increasingly overt depictions of the female body, of opened labia, the body’s orifices and protuberances. There are breasts and pregnant bellies, puckerings and tunnels. However close to garments they might be, these hanging forms have become phantom bodies. In Abakan Red, a squoinky bowsprit or extruded nose, slightly bent-out-of-shape in some cartoonish mishap (maybe it was poked somewhere it wasn’t meant to go) reaches into space. The more I look, the more lewd and funny this form gets. Are those testicles dangling into the crease beside the nose, if it is a nose? Nearby, a large and pleasurably misshapen ball of sisal, like a black cloud or rock, dangles from the ceiling. Standing beneath it I thought of a think-bubble, some dreadful melancholy made visible, hovering over my head for all to see.
One of the difficulties facing commentators and critics of Abakanowicz’s work was, through the 1960s and 70s, how to place the varied and multiform things she did. Were her wall-hangings and suspended woven works art at all? Or was it craft or “applied art” or “fibre art”? Was it sculpture? Was her approach (according to Polish censors who closed her first exhibition before it even opened) too formalistic? Critics called her a “painter at the looms”, and described her works as “carpet creatures”. Later commentators have tried to see her in relation to American postminimalism, and to Italian arte povera. Louise Bourgeois once dismissed an exhibition that included Abakanowicz as “rarely rising above decoration”.
But for Abakanowicz it was always all about the body, with sex and physical and mental plight. She denied being a feminist artist, although female American critics championed her, and in 2009 she was included in the terrific 2009 exhibition Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution, that travelled from Los Angeles to New York. There is a telling moment in Abakanowicz’s Tate Modern exhibition where one can look through a narrow vertical opening beside one of her suspended fabric works down into the Turbine Hall, and get a clear and vertiginous view of the similarly suspended fabric works of Chilean artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña. Both use homely materials, and both transform what might be regarded as remnants of an essentially feminine production – weaving, knitting, threading and so forth – into an art that is as much a material language of protection and protest, of swaddling and care, enshrouding and remembrance, as it is a celebration of a medium or means of production.
Abakanowicz’s materials gave her both a great deal of flexibility, as well as having all kinds of both everyday and symbolic associations, especially given what is still largely regarded as the feminised labour of sewing and weaving. This is all crucial to reading her work, although, in numerous later small works here, she was interested in far more than one particular medium. In one small, crudely constructed vitrine animal horns are cocooned inside a tangled nest of steel wire. More horns fill another rackety vitrine, and others contain puzzling, slightly disturbing relics, one swaddled in an old suit. A burlap rhino’s head, reminiscent of a hunter’s trophy, hangs high on a wall.
In the latter part of her career (Abakanowicz died in 2017) she went in directions I, and the curators of this exhibition, have chosen not to follow. She went on to make bronze trees and groups of headless bronze figures and flocks of birds in flight, and burlap beings I find toe-curling and dreary with their supposed universality and humanistic overtones. For Abakanowicz, going into bronze was like going into production. The current show, which will travel to Lausanne and Oslo, wisely leaves all this out, and instead illuminates the core of what she did, with all its mysterious shadows.
Magdalena Abakanowicz: Every Tangle of Thread and Rope is at Tate Modern, London, from 17 November to 21 May.