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Insistent Presences: Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930–2017)

As we near the completion of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden renovation, we are saddened to hear of the passing of the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, whose Sagacious Head 6 and 7 (1989–1990) will once again be on view to our audiences in June. A student at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts between 1950 and 1954, […]

Magdelena Abakanowicz in front of Bronze Crowd (1990-1991) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, May 1992

Magdalena Abakanowicz in front of Bronze Crowd (1990–1991) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, May 1992

As we near the completion of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden renovation, we are saddened to hear of the passing of the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, whose Sagacious Head 6 and 7 (1989–1990) will once again be on view to our audiences in June. A student at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts between 1950 and 1954, Abakanowicz’s early works incorporated textiles, ropes and soft materials such as canvas and sisal that resulted in abstract forms she termed ‘abakans’. Speaking of works from this period, Abakanowicz said in 1969: “I became concerned with all that could be done through weaving […] how constructed surface can swell and burst, showing a glimpse of mysterious depths through cracks… My particular aim is to create possibilities for complete communion with an art object whose structure is complex and soft.”1 Abakanowicz’s materials were often found or discarded—she collected old pieces of wood, and would purchase used burlap vegetable sacks from market sellers in Warsaw. The “abakans” ranged from modest-sized sculptures to 15-foot-tall suspended soft works that suggested veils and shrouds, dense treetops, and oversized fantastical clothing.

A model showing Magdalena Abakanowicz's proposal for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden Court, 1990

A model showing Magdalena Abakanowicz’s proposal for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden Court, 1990

A trial installation of Magdalena Abakanowicz's Bronze Crowd (1990-1991) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, May 1992

A trial installation of Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Bronze Crowd (1990–1991) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, May 1992

In 1992, Abakanowicz was invited to create a series of sculptures that would be placed on a newly designed court within the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Designed by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburg, the court quoted from Edward Larrabee Barnes’s designs for both the Walker building and Sculpture Garden. The resulting space took the form of a granite-paved 110 x 60-foot sculpture plaza, bounded on one side by a wall surfaced with dark violet brick, identical to the sheathing of the Walker building. Abakanowicz was chosen, as her sculptures offered a “strong counterpoint to the geometry of the plaza, her headless figures would be alien intrusions in an essentially polite space […] their human scale and emotional intensity would make them insistent presences,” as Martin Friedman, then Walker Director Emeritus, wrote in a small publication made to accompany the unveiling.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Sagacious Head 6 and 7 (1989-90), Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, 1992

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Sagacious Head 6 and 7 (1989–1990), Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, 1992

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Bronze Crowd (1990-91), Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, 1992

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Bronze Crowd (1990–1991), Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, 1992

Abakanowicz’s commission resulted in Bronze Crowd (1990–1991), a grouping of upright headless human figures, and Sagacious Head 6 and 7 (1989–1990), a pair of sculptures, which return to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden this summer. In the mid-1970s, Abakanowicz began taking molds of the human body, directly from a sitter in her studio. Leaving aside the head (“too complicated”) and hands (“too narrative”2), Abakanowicz created proliferations of anonymous, headless figures that she would group together, often to a menacing or haunting effect. Sagacious Head 6 and 7 followed from a series of sculptures the artist made in Seoul, Korea titled Space of the Dragon, which featured ten giant heads. Without recognizable facial features, Sagacious Head 6 and 7 were made specifically to reference natural forms such as rocks, and imagined organisms.

Magdalena Abakanowicz inspecting Bronze Crowd (1990-1991), Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, May 1992

Magdalena Abakanowicz inspecting Bronze Crowd (1990–1991), Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, May 1992

 

Unveiling of Magdalena Abakanowicz's commission, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, 9/12/1992

Unveiling of Magdalena Abakanowicz’s commission, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, September, 12, 1992

Looking back at her Minneapolis Sculpture Garden commission, Abakanowicz said:

I remember my first visit to the Walker Art Center. I walked in the mud to the area destined for the future extension of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. I found myself there, overpowered by the highway in constant motion and the downtown skyscrapers in the background. This feeling of the power of the city organism remained strongly in my memory. Asked to make one Sagacious Head, with some Standing Figures, I felt unhappy and insisted on two Heads. I felt two justified each other better, protected each other. I decided to add a crowd of figures that could help the Heads resist the urban environment. The whole area will change over time. Grass has already covered the soil. Trees planted around the area will introduce the unchangeable law of changing seasons. Long before cathedrals were erected as areas of meditation and landmarks for towns, even before Stonehenge was raised, the need to divide and shape space was a necessity for man. Sites of contemplation and spiritual shelter provided a sense of measure in endless territory, offered goals for our wandering, and justified our existence. Overcrowding is as aggressive as emptiness and demands areas where we may “take off our sandals.” I feel sculpture gardens could become such places, where people can meditate and become aware not only of new tendencies in art but also of their own relation to space, scale, and the important world of metaphor and imagination. These gardens could constitute sites of spiritual shelter, in accordance with the very old needs that accompany human existence.3

As we prepare to open the renovated Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and unveil several newly commissioned works by a new generation of artists, we think back to Abakanowicz’s impressions. With nearly 20 new works, and a total of 60 sculpture on view in the Garden, we hope our visitors will find both old and new favorites, and sculptures that offer moments of contemplation, pause, and perhaps even respite.

Notes

1. Magdalena Abakanowicz quoted in Inglot, J. (2004) The Figurative Sculpture of Magdalena Abakanowicz, University of California Press.

2. Magdalena Abakanowicz quoted in the Walker-produced exhibition booklet made to accompany her Minneapolis Sculpture Garden commission.

3. Ibid.

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