Magdalena Abakanowicz: Backward on Bench

October 4, 2013

Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (b. 1930) transcends medium by deftly transforming fiber and textiles into haunting figures that depict the various states of the human condition. In less than ten days, LAMA will offer Backward on Bench (2005), a monumental bronze sculpture from her Backs period during which she exhibited her seated figures on three continents. 

Detail of Backward on Bench (2005), Magdalena Abakanowicz

Abakanowicz remained in Poland throughout the chaos of World War II and post-war communism, both eras influencing her art-making process and themes of her work. During her studies at Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts, Abakanowicz focused on drawing and painting, but quickly shifted her concentration to fabric and fiber tapestries, one of which was exhibited at the International Tapestry Biennale in 1962. Abakanowicz’s bold experiments with textiles – her three-dimensional Abakans (1960s) hang from the ceiling to create shadowy inner folds – were instrumental in elevating “weaving from a craft to an art form.”

Backward on Bench (2005), Magdalena Abakanowicz

From the 60s onward, Abakanowicz forged unique methods of manipulating fiber to result in massive sculptural forms made from a combination of textiles and metal. In each of her sculptural cycles, repetition is essential in conveying the theme, and these repeated forms – Alterations: Heads (1973-75), Seated Figures (1974-79), and Backs (1976-82) – take on new meaning depending on the location. Abakanowicz thought that it was “extremely important” to travel to these exhibitions to prepare her works: “I arranged it, I gave to it the power, the climate, the whole atmosphere.”

 Side view of Backward on Bench (2005), Magdalena AbakanowiczSide view of Backward on Bench (2005), Magdalena Abakanowicz

For Backs, “her first attempt to deal directly with the human figure,” Abakanowicz created a plaster mold of the human body and then formed burlap and rope against the plaster to create a rough shell of a seated figure. Hunched-over and hollow, the bodies are always exhibited facing in the same direction away from viewers. Upwards of 80 Backs in a group have been exhibited at once in various international locations, from the banks of a river in Poland to a hillside in South Korea. Cast in bronze in 2005, Backward on Bench carries marks left by the burlap and rope that resemble “arteries, veins, and sinew, giving the impression that one is looking into the body.” Critics tend to associate the nameless, faceless Backs with Polish citizens rendered helpless at the hands of the post-WWII totalitarian regime, or victims of the Holocaust. Abakanowicz confirms and clarifies: “People who saw the Backs would ask: ‘Is it Auschwitz?’ ‘Is it a religious ceremony in Peru?’ ‘Is it a dance from the Ramayana?’ The answer to these questions is affirmative, because it speaks about the human condition in general.” During her retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1982, a viewer contemplating 80 Backs said to Abakanowicz, “I understood: the face can lie, the body cannot.”

Signature of Backward on Bench (2005), Magdalena Abakanowicz

Lot Information:

Lot 430
Magdalena Abakanowicz
Backward on Bench
Stamped “Backward on Bench 2005″ with artist’s monogram
46.5″ x 46.5″ x 22”
Provenance: Marlborough Gallery, New York, New York; Private Collection, Santa Barbara, California (acquired directly from the above)
Estimate: $25,000 – 35,000

Leave a Reply