New York
New York  Art at Site Magdalena Abakanowicz	Walking Figures

Magdalena Abakanowicz

Walking Figures
Dag Hammarskjold Plaza (temporary)
Walking Figures is a group of headless cast iron figures by Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. They appear to be walking aimlessly without sight and the sombre tone makes reference to both time and loss. A larger group of figures, cast simultaneously in the artist’s studio, is titled Agora and is on permanent display in Chicago’s Grant Park. An agora was a meeting place in ancient Greece where the concept of democracy began. There was no citizen above the law and everyone had power to vote. It was an unbiased way of life. This sculpture is a Legacy piece from the 2005-2007 Vancouver Biennale.
I first saw Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Ninety-Five Figures from the Crowd of One Thousand Ninety-Five Figures at the Cultural Center in Chicago in November 2000. I didn’t realize at the time, but the Ninety-Five Figures would have me thinking for the next three years. This piece consists of ninety-five headless and armless figures made of bronze. Their backs are hollow and the skin has a wrinkled texture to it.
Looking at this headless crowd, you can’t help but feel solitude as well as melancholy. It reminds me a little of Edward Hopper’s work, because in his paintings, there are people, but they are always alone, they never interact with one another. That is the feeling I get with Abakanowicz’s figures. It is a large crowd, overwhelming in mass because of the material, but it is a lonely crowd. In thinking of that, I started thinking of my everyday experiences. On my way to school or work, I pass many people, avoid them, but never really interact with them. In these large crowds of people, we are always alone.
That is a really sad and depressing thought. And I think that is why I have always thought about this exhibit. To have an image impact me so much emotionally is not an everyday occurrence. I mean, I look at a lot of great artwork, but I can honestly say, that there are only a few pieces that I think about constantly. I really enjoy when a piece overwhelms me and submerges me in an experience. That is exactly what Abakanowicz did for me.
Magdalena Abakanowicz was born in Falenty, Poland (near Warsaw) in 1930. (1) She grew up on her parents’ estate, spending most of her time making forms out of clay, stone, twigs, broken china, etc. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and graduated in 1954. (2) She has received honorary doctorate degrees from the Royal College of Art in London, the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and the Academy of Fine Arts in Lodz, Poland. She has been a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poland and a visiting professor at UCLA.
First Abakanowicz was a painter, and then she became famous for her organic textile reliefs that “were expressive, monumental, and evocative of the human condition. Her use of natural materials was in response to the dire economic conditions in Poland, but her eloquent use of these materials imbued her textiles with great presence.” (4) Eventually, Abakanowicz started working with burlap, glue, resin, and sisal, then turned to casting in aluminum, and finally in bronze. “In her early bronzes, Abakanowicz created diverse forms that still relate to her organic sensibility.”
Ninety-Five Figures in a Crowd of One Thousand Ninety-Five Figures “reveal her ambivalence about crowds.” (3) Abakanowicz said, “I’m frightened by crowds of people, birds or even insects swarming in great masses. People in an airport, people on a metro or on a tram, can seem threatening, horrible, a brainless entity. Today we are pushed by quantity in general. I create these crowds of figures as a warning: they’re saying we are too many.”
“Unable to think, fight, or even gesture, these anonymous husks of bodies become monuments to the mute human endurance of regimentation and repression so tragically characteristic of modern history.” It is tempting to think that works such as these are commentaries on the oppressive life Abakanowicz experienced in Poland under the Nazis and then the Communists. But while she admits that her vision has been shaped by her life in a totalitarian society, she rejects constricted political readings of her sculpture and thinks of them in more universal terms. “If I talk about problems, it’s global,” she says. “Everything I do is about the human condition.”
I’m not the only one who thinks Magdalena Abakanowicz’s work is emotionally provocative and powerful. Kathy Zimmerer in her article on Abakanowicz says, “Abakanowicz’s work delves directly into the human sensibility. While mute, her figures resound with a raw emotion and power that is full of psychological tension.” There are so many things you can read into this work. And I think that the artist intends on there being some ambiguity. She wants the viewer to bring into it of their own life, their own experience. Like I quoted earlier, she deals with the human condition, and we are all a part of that.