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It's Not So Lonely at the Top

Magdalena Abakanowicz's haunting sculptures atop the Metropolitan Museum are likely to draw crowds this summer.

May 09, 1999|PAUL LIEBERMAN | Paul Lieberman is a Times staff writer

NEW YORK — What else would you put in the most pastoral museum setting in this city but . . . 16 rows of headless, hollow bronze figures?

Oh, and a trio of headless birds. And a headless torso on a tree trunk. And three enormous, amorphous skulls. . . .

"These are shell-like negatives of the human body," explains Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz, as she passes her 40 child-sized headless bodies--an unlikely vision, indeed, to be silhouetted against the blooming trees of Central Park and, in the distance, the ornate hotels and apartment buildings that ring the park.

Abakanowicz's haunting bronzes are this year's featured attraction of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's rooftop garden, a spectacular outdoor display area open only during the good-weather season, May through the fall.

"Abakanowicz on the Roof" includes three new works created by the 69-year-old artist-philosopher for the setting she compares to "the flying enchanted carpet from '1,001 Nights.' " In a museum not noted for displaying works of the living, the exhibition may well become a must-see for summer crowds of tourists.

"I think that this is one of the most important moments of my life," Abakanowicz says days before the opening, having come here from her home in Warsaw to supervise the installation. "To have the public confronted with my sculpture, surrounded by this"--she waves at the park and the skyline--"and below, an encyclopedia of art. The terrace is something unreal. Unreal."

As to what it means . . . get set for a tour dotted with cryptic comments about mosquitoes, Stalin and art-as-metaphor.

Abakanowicz was born in 1930 to a family with aristocratic roots on both sides--her father was a Russian who fled the Bolsheviks, her mother was Polish--and grew up in a "country estate" outside Warsaw, with all the silver-spoon trappings.

That ended when first the Germans, then the Russians, invaded. Abakanowicz has written about how a drunken German soldier wounded her mother, the bullet tearing at the right elbow in a way that "severed her arm from the shoulder, wounded her left hand. The capable, wise hand suddenly became a piece of meat, separate. I looked at it with amazement. I had seen dead bodies, but they somehow had always preserved their completeness in front of others."

Abakanowicz hid her privileged background to get into art school in Sopot, on the Baltic Coast, then into Warsaw's Academy of Fine Arts, supporting herself in part, she has said, by giving blood. When she got out, she lived in a single rented room and took a job helping to design silk ties.

Through the '50s, she mostly worked with gouaches on paper and canvas. She was given her first one-artist show in Warsaw in 1960, and over that decade turned to sculpture, learning to weave and using sisal fiber to produce large, tangled works that became known as "Abakans." Up to 16 feet tall, they hung from the ceiling, one critic noted, "as if they were the mutilated torsos of giants."

She also began being displayed--and acclaimed--outside Poland, first with gallery shows in Switzerland, then garnering first prize at Brazil's 1965 Sao Paulo Bienal.

In the '70s, she discovered burlap--sometimes using discarded vegetable sacks--and gained a new level of renown by crafting headless humanoid figures she would position in groups on the floor.

Her first one-woman show in the United States was at the Pasadena Art Center in 1971, and she later made her first large aluminum casting with the help of California students, a group from Cal State Fullerton.

By 1991, her stature was such that she was one of 22 artists asked to propose designs for a gateway to Paris. She came up with "an ecological city . . . of the future," and became one of four finalists with her plan--which she recognized was too ambitious to win--for 60 buildings shaped like trees, each to be covered in vegetation.

"Material is for me a tool," she told an interviewer at the time, "like an instrument, on which I play with my insides."

Her material these days is bronze, which she calls "the biggest liar, because it can imitate everything."

Abakanowicz is dressed in black for the preview tour on the Met's roof. Auburn-haired, she looks younger than her years, with the athletic posture of a former track competitor good enough to make the Polish national team.

"I think that art will remain the most astonishing activity of mankind," she says. But she cautions, too, how "it was often used for propaganda purposes of totalitarian regimes. . . . We recall that Hitler was a painter and Stalin used to write poems."

She walks toward "Bambini," the rows of 3-foot-tall headless children that are one of the works she created for the garden. The bronze figures--Giacometti-like in their fragility, lonely even in the group--are framed here from behind by the sea of trees and then the Plaza Hotel and the rest of Central Park South, the buildings looking like one of those pop-out dioramas.

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