“The face can lie. The back cannot,” artist Magdalena Abakanowicz says of her longtime fascination with the human back. But if her sculptural backs tell the truth--or at least talk straight about an aspect of the human condition--she isn’t inclined to translate the body language. “Nothing is literal in my art; it is fully metaphoric,” she says. “To try to explain it would be to explain it away.”
The 70-year-old Polish sculptor--whose work is on view at Grant Selwyn Fine Art in Beverly Hills--has dealt with a variety of subjects and materials throughout her career. Initially known in the 1960s for massive three-dimensional weavings, she also has made animals, figures and abstractions of resin-impregnated burlap, bronze, limestone, concrete and tree trunks.
Still, she has repeatedly gone back to backs, often producing large groups of similar figures that fill galleries or populate entire hillsides. In the current show at Grant Selwyn, rear views of people dominate a survey of sculpture and drawings from 1988 to 2000. Visitors immediately confront the backs of 20 seated figures along a side wall and six more figures standing at the rear of the airy, white gallery. All cast in bronze, the hollow, shell-like forms are larger than life-size and headless.
Abakanowicz’s backs have been interpreted as everything from inmates at concentration camps and members of cults to ceremonial dancers and assembly-line workers. When asked about her penchant for assembling masses of figures, the Warsaw-based artist refers to her youthful memories of World War II and its aftermath in Poland.
“I happened to live in times which were extraordinary, times of collective hate and collective adoration,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “Crowds worshiped leaders, apparently great and good, who soon became mass murderers.”
Crowds can be “brainless organisms,” she says. Yet, even as that image begins to take shape, she offers another possible interpretation. Her crowds of figures also can be seen as masses of insects or leaves--or other natural phenomena composed of thousands of units that look alike but are not identical.
“Nature is unable to reproduce itself exactly, just as human beings cannot repeat the same gesture,” Abakanowicz says. And just as “nature produces countless quantities of individuals,” as she puts it, she fashions an astonishing number of unique sculptures.
Born in Falenty, Poland, Abakanowicz was a privileged child, but her wealthy family was uprooted and reduced to poverty during the war. Nonetheless, she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw in the early 1950s and fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming an artist.
She started her career as a painter, but in the 1960s, when artists explored new uses of traditional craft materials, she moved into sculpture in a very big way. Abakanowicz exploded on the international scene with “Abakans,” monumental woven forms that she suspended from the ceiling in walk-through environments. Among other honors received in her early days, she won the grand prize at the 1965 Sao Paolo Biennale.
In the 1970s, Abakanowicz shifted from weaving her own structures to producing large cycles of figures and abstract forms out of burlap stiffened with resin. During the 1980s, she concentrated on monumental sculptures of bronze, stone, wood and iron. Her resume lists dozens of exhibitions, international festivals and permanent outdoor installations all over Europe, Asia and the U.S., including a group of 30 bronze figures at the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden in Washington.
Abakanowicz’s show at Grant Selwyn is a homecoming of sorts, however. In 1971, the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) presented her first U.S. exhibition. In 1984, UCLA staged a major exhibition of her work while she served as a visiting professor there. During that period, she also worked at Cal State Fullerton, where she cast her first bronze sculpture--a back. It was purchased by Los Angeles collectors, the late Richard Sherwood and his wife, Dorothy, for their collection.
Abakanowicz says the current show is special because the 20 bronze seated figures--on display for the first time--have a Hiroshima connection that is particularly meaningful to her. The story begins in 1991, when an international retrospective of her work traveled to the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art and several thousand residents petitioned city authorities to commission her to do a permanent installation.
“When they came to me, I was working on the image of a backward seated figure, armless, very simple, much larger than human size,” she said. “They liked it and we decided I would make 40 of these figures for the museum, which has a hillside terrace looking over Hiroshima. I created 40 sculptures, each as an individual. By then, I was so incredibly involved in it that I made 20 more for myself. They have been in my private collection, but I finally decided that this is my communication with people, that they should find their place in public.”
As to their meaning for people whose city was devastated by an atomic bomb, she says: “Art doesn’t solve problems, but it makes us aware of their existence.”
Beautiful arrangements of sculpture, including crouched backs, can undercut artistic expression, she says, adding that sculpture gardens tend to turn sculpture into decoration. Still, she loves to create situations in which art seems to arise from its surroundings and encourage thoughts about the difference between nature’s creations and the human imagination’s works. She also delights in letting people wander through her work. “In these big compositions, you enter the art. You are part of it,” she says.
The first time Abakanowicz fashioned a back, in burlap, she used a live model. But she immediately added her own imprint. The bronze backs are “something between tree bark and a dry leaf, or a fallen rock or a mummy,” she says. “Everything is finally invented. Even if there is somewhere a model, finally it is me--in the scale, the interpretation, everything.”
It could not be otherwise, she says. “I am myself. I don’t follow trends. I do not belong to any movement. I speak in my own
voice, formulated in a completely different reality than that of the Western world.”
She can’t forget growing up and working amid war and revolution. Totalitarian systems of government overpowered individuality in Poland and created “a certain mentality” unlike “the normal life of people who are not frightened,” but it wasn’t all bad for artists, she says. Because of their circumstances, creative people felt an extraordinary sense of responsibility to express themselves effectively and make the most of every opportunity.
What’s more, she says, postwar Poland provided a rather schizophrenic support system that allowed for more creativity than might be expected. “We were always struggling with the regime, but our struggle was often supported by the authorities because they thought culture was very important. They were not afraid of metaphoric expression,” she says.
Odd as it might seem, it was possible for artists to be “against government but sponsored by the government” during the years of Communist domination, she says. “This was the duality that we had all the time. We were never obedient. We were always struggling for our freedom. And from this struggle came a lot of very important cultural achievements for our country.”
Today, Polish artists struggle to cope with “the worst of capitalism,” she says. But she has no plans to leave. “People sometimes ask why I live there. I think it is one of the most interesting countries. The difficulties we went through do not matter. What matters is the extraordinary experience that one can have in this strange reality.” *
Suzanne Muchnic is The Times’ art writer.
“MAGDALENA ABAKANOWICZ: ABOUT THE HUMAN CONDITION,” Grant Selwyn Fine Art, 341 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. Dates: Tuesdays-Saturdays,
10 a.m.-6 p.m. Through April 14. Phone: (310) 777-2400.