A big problem with sculpture these days is that practically anything can call itself sculpture and get away with it. The medium is spread thin all the way from Charles Ray's hyperreal but zombielike mannequins, through Cady Noland's stacks of beer cans surrounded by chain link, to tyro Christian Marclay's unwinding reels of audiotape. It's a form increasingly bereft of a convincing convention. (Painting, at least, turns into something else once it gets too far away from the hand-colored rectangle.) All the more remarkable-and welcome-then, when a sculptor of Magdalena Abakanowicz's deep talent and piercing vision revitalizes the free-standing, autonomous sculptural object. Two current exhibitions in New York, one called "War Games" at the P.S. I Museum in Queens (through June 20), and the other at Manhattan's Marlborough Gallery (through June 5), show what wonders an artist can perform when she works close to the bone.
Except for a brief teaching stint at UCLA in 1971, Abakanowicz, 63, has lived and worked all her life in Poland. She was born to a mother descended from nobility and a father who was part Tartar, on the family estate in Falenty. In the late 1940s, after being uprooted by both the Nazis and the Soviets during World War II, she worked as a common laborer. In 1950 she moved to Warsaw and, while an art student, ran the 400- and 800-meters for the Polish national track team. She began her artistic career as a weaver. Her unruly, knotty works broke the bounds of traditional tapestry-making and won her a place in every Lausanne Biennal (the international fiber-arts show) from 1962 to 1979.
But she felt confined in the world of weavers and took her love of the rough, gnarled expressive possibilities of burlap into sculpture. The best-known work in that material is a series of "Backs": rows of headless, slump-shouldered people that capture the dour, existential quality of life in Central Europe, from the Great Depression right up through General Jaruzelski's martial law. The "Backs" may have looked a little corny to Western art-world eyes accustomed to the fey ironies of Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol (two artists Abakanowicz cites as her opposites), but they came unmediated from Abakanowicz's own experience. "The fact of being isolated from the Western development of arts for over 40 years favored my introverted nature," she says. "I look for inspiration in myself and my environment ... The reality behind the Iron Curtain: mass worship, mass hate, and limitations in everyday life."
The big works in "War Games" (astutely curated by critic Michael Brenson) inventively extend Abakanowicz's heroically dyspeptic vision of humankind. Begun in 1987, the series uses large found tree trunks left over from logging, too malformed for cutting into lumber and too dangerous to leave beside the road. Abakanowicz takes these twisted natural monuments and embellishes them with steel blades ("Zyk," 1989), fins ("Winged Trunk," 1989) and cowls ("Anasta," 1989). She then daringly cantilevers them on industrial-looking bases. These sculptures are at once organic and mechanical, menacing and wounded, aggressive and dying. They're powerful but unforced metaphors for both the cold war and the razing of Poland's forests to provide timber for Scandanavia. The big room at P.S. 1, with five of the exhibition's 11 pieces in it, looks like a Greenpeace mockery of a weapons museum. And-attention, installation artists!-it derives its power from being filled with stirring individual art objects, rather than straining for profundity by simply being a whole roomful of stuff.
The Marlborough show is more luminous, more graceful and, all told, less consequential. But the 1992 "Circus" figures, in particular, Giacomettiish burlap humanoids atop-but probably not in control of-skeletal, faceted wheels, are just as eerie as the "WarGames" works. Abakanowicz claims to be uninterested in what other artists are doing and is unwilling to attend their exhibitions. In the end, she does what modern artists are supposed to do, in the words of Ezra Pound: make it new. Where she towers above her trendier peers, who have no trouble with the "new" is in not relinquishing the "it." In the sculpture of Abakanowicz, cohesive form and human content merge with an impact we haven't seen since the dawn of minimalism. The lesson: although anything can be sculpture, very little can be great sculpture.