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She's Turned Her Backs on the World

Sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz has peopled sites from L.A. to Hiroshima with rear-facing figures who speak volumes.

March 25, 2001|SUZANNE MUCHNIC

"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.

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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.

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