I am interested in constructing an environment from my forms.
I am interested in the scale of tensions that arises between the various shapes which I place in space.
I am interested in the feeling when confronted by the woven object.
I am interested in the motion and waving of the woven surface.
I am interested in every tangle of thread and rope and every possibility of transformation.
I am interested in the path of a single thread
I am not interested in the practical usefulness of my work.

Magdalena Abakanowicz 1971

The retrospective of Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930- 2017)  is on at Tate Modern until 21st May. 

 Magdalena spent her formative years firstly under Nazi rule, and then under strict communist rule in Poland. Seeing the worst of human behaviour must have had such an influence on both her work and personality. Whilst studying at the Academy of Plastic Arts in Warsaw, she remembered a tutor erasing the majority of her drawing, reducing it to the most minimal lines. When recalling this, she said she hated him for it. It was at the Academy that she learned several textile techniques including weaving. She graduated in 1954. 

Her early works were paintings with few weavings, but was interested in the the expressive potential of weaving, and she soon adopted weaving as her chosen medium to produce artworks

Textural Composition White

Sisal and cotton 1961-62

The Tate retrospective is set into 6 distinct sections that highlight how her practice evolved during her life.

‘Beginnings’ and ‘Organic World’ shows the early experimental pieces that were created using the looms of Maria Laskiewicz (1891- 1981) and when exhibited at the Lausanne Biennial Tapestry in 1962 shocked the critics as she’d not used the traditional cartoon used in Tapestry Weaving.

I was particularly drawn to ‘Textural Compostion White’ with its use of cottons and sisal, and also knowing that it was probably created without a cartoon, the skill involved in creating the piece of work really hits home. 


Design for Tapisserie 21 brune

Ink and Gouache on papers on paper 1963

Tapisserie 21 brune

Wool – 1963

Tapisserie 21 brune, woven by Maria Lydzba at the Rekodzielo co-operative demonstrates Magdalena’s involvement in the Polish state run craft programmes of the early 1960’s. The craft cooperatives employed artists as designers, and this was a common source of income alongside individual artist practices.


Wool, Cotton, Sisal and Horsehair – 1964-65

However, 3 years later in 1965, she was presented with the gold medal in applied arts at the Sao Paulo Biennial, for her group of 5 large scale wall weavings, each given the name of a woman from history or mythology. Despite the international recognition of her art, Magdalena was unable to get permission to travel to Brazil from the Polish Government.


The 3rd and 4th rooms of the exhibition ‘A Fibrous Forest’ and ‘Petrified Organism’ show the woven three-dimensional forms, which are called ‘Abakans’. The term was coined by an art critic in 1964 and was adopted by the artist to refer to her large three-dimensional works.

The first fully three-dimensional form was made in 1967, and the exhibition shows Abakan ‘etroit’ one of the earliest examples. Being so close to the sculpture is a real opportunity to see how Magdalena’s own description is so true: ‘ The fabric I made was stiff, it’s surface grew into reliefs like tree bark or animal fur’

Abakan Etroit

Sisal and Wool  – 1967-68

Abakan Etroit - detail

Sisal and Wool  – 1967-68

During the late 60’s and early 70’s Magdalena was able to participate in a growing number of international exhibitions, although preferring the terms ‘situations’ or ‘environments’ to installations. It was important that the groupings of large pieces felt immersive, and the lighting of each space allowed the artworks to produce dramatic shadows on the walls. 

Abakan Orange

Sisal – 1968

Abakan Red

Sisal – 1969

Abakan Yellow

Sisal and Rope 1970

The Abakans cemented Magdalena’s position in the Fibre Art Movement, which challenged the boundaries of what was considered ‘art’ and ‘craft’. It became a source of frustration that she was labelled a fibre artist. 

Her later work ‘Embryology’ from 1978- 1980 was a series of ambiguous forms made from a combination of fabrics and fibres, which led to her later work taking on more of a human form. 

The exhibition is on until 21st May and is really worth a visit if you can get to London this month – a perfect bank holiday trip!