Myth vs. Reality
Magdalena Abakanowicz at Marlborough; plus Helen Miranda Wilson’s first exhibited abstractions at DC Moore.

Born in Poland in 1930, Magdalena Abakanowicz’s personal history is an instrument of myth. The catalogue for her current exhibition at Marlborough describes her as a “sculptor, shaman, visionary, sage, and increasingly, statesperson” as well as a “global citizen.” It proclaims her “a central figure regulating the pulse of late 20th century art,” echoing Barbara Rose’s assessment of her as a canonical figure who sits at the right hand of Picasso. Add the artist’s claim to be descended from Polish aristocrats who trace their lineage to Genghis Khan, and we are in the mythico-sacral realm exploited by Joseph Beuys.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Unrecognised 2001-2002

In the 1960s in Warsaw—where she still lives and works—Ms. Abakanowicz began a series of monumental woven environments called “Abakans,” after her own name. Lacking studio space or money for supplies, the artist worked in her single room apartment with salvaged materials. Simply getting things done was an act of ingenuity and endurance which lent a heroic cast to the work itself. It won the Grand Prize at the Sao Paolo Biennial in 1965, bringing international prominence and the start of a fruitful and impressive career.

Her sculpture is most suggestive in series: towering, headless, archaic figures grouped like the 112 cast iron ones that comprise “Unrecognized” (2001-02) in Poznan, Poland or the 100 to be installed in Grant Park, Chicago next spring. Congregated, they evoke modernity’s blind march to the gates of hell and the impersonal forces that drive it.

On show at Marlborough are pieces which are not part of any edition: 7 distinct figures in bronze plus 3 winged stainless steel “flyers,” made in collaboration with her long-time welder. Viewed singly, her cumbrous bronze forms are almost mute. Her eloquence arises from multiplicity; it is not internal to the individual sculptures. (Compare the anxious figural distortions of Marino Marini or the headless figures of Ewald Matare, produced in Germany in the 1920s, that require no accompaniment.) “Zinaxin” (2005) is a looming hieroglyph with legs. It rises, mid-chest, to a protuberance that carries no conviction as a head and communicates little. “Gutron in Cage” (2005) might have been a powerful image of entrapment if the platform-crowned torso conveyed a fuller sense of human presence. As is, it bears the artificial look of a solid broken from a mold.

One truly compelling figure is “Jasnal” (2005). A lithe, androgynous body sits atop a high stool. The slim neck supports a gracefully abstracted animal head with long ears and a snout that suggests the donkey head worn by Bottom in “Mid-Summer’s Night Dream.” But arms are cut just above the elbow. The figure is amputated, a brute product of nightmare. This solitary sculpture accomplishes what the others intend: It resounds with lamentation in the wake of unnamed oppressions.

Included in the exhibition are 35 gouaches, the least known of the artists’ repertory. Each is a lumpen, oversized approximation of a human head drawn with her fingers. The drawings cast a different light on Ms. Abakanowicz’s preference for headless forms. It is one thing for an artist to travel freely through the facts of figuration; it is something else to be ineffectual in stating them.

Critical response to Ms. Abakanowicz’s work is colored by her status as a totem of art under an authoritarian regime. However, this skirts the fact that state sponsorship was responsible for her very inclusion in the Sao Paolo Biennial. And far from the lone voice of Eastern European art, she has significant affinities to other prominent Polish artists, chief among them Tadeusz Kantor and several women active in post-war Poland.

This exhibition coincides with Ms. Abramowicz’s receipt of the International Sculpture Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor sufficiently vexed by extra-aesthetic concerns that—like the Nobel Peace Prize—it is hard to know just what it signifies.


Goodbye to Helen Miranda Wilson’s characteristic small, detailed still lifes, serene landscapes and cloud scapes. She has gone abstract with surprising panache. Who knew?

Exhibited for the first time at DC Moore are 21 panels with vivacious geometric abstractions on the same intimate scale as her representational painting. Ms. Wilson has the good sense not to sacrifice the appealing modesty of her usual dimensions to beefed up pictorial rhetoric. Here, too, is the same lovely matte surface, undisturbed by assertive brushwork. And what color! Light and dark contrasts move in concert with variations of intensity that advance and recede. Your eye moves both through the painting and around it, as it does in more complex compositions.

Ms. Wilson calls these “calendar paintings” because the format provides a grid that can be filled in one at a time as the days permit. She disassembles and rearranges her lattice in patchwork fashion suggestive of quilts. Association with fabric is strengthened by the gossamer effect of threads of paint pulled by a fine fan brush from one color patch to another, softening edges.

“Rembrandt: for Pat Lipsky” (2005) is tonally subdued and pitch perfect. Its variations on the paving stone pattern recalls the canvases of Sean Scully. But Mr. Scully injects a simple design with steroids and struts it on oversized supports to announce contemporaneity. Ms. Wilson’s refusal of bombast underscores a forgotten reality: geometric abstraction predates Mondrian’s Neoplasticism by thousands of years. The combined pleasures of geometry and color are as ancient as the structural patterns of weaving. The painter’s grid of post-Cubist devotion is the warp and weft of textiles brought up to date.


“Magdalena Abakanowicz: Confessions” at Marlborough Gallery (40 West 57th Street, 212-541-9000).

“Helen Miranda Wilson” at DC Moore (724 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, 212-247-2111).

These reviews appeared first in The New York Sun, October 27, 2005.

Copyright 2005, Maureen Mullarkey

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