The scent is of warm sheep’s fleece, fresh peat and sisal. The sense is of being outdoors in the woods. All around you they rise: dark, looming forms suspended from on high, some of them branching out like trees, others tangled with vines or opening their hollow trunks as if to offer shelter from the coming storm. An ancient forest, primal, majestic, mysterious – and all of it created from wool.
The Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017) was a weaver of sculptures. What she did was so radical that it startles even today. She took the conventional flat hanging tapestry woven for thousands of years and remade it in three dimensions. Her weavings are vast objects suspended in space that might feel human – great heads, enormous anatomies – or might be organic, from hills to boughs to serpentine coils and lianas.
There are moments when you seem to be looking at a gigantic orange face, pierced with expressive eyes and mouth, turning slightly in the circumambient air; and then it appears more like a red planet, casting ancient shadows on the wall. There are sombre black tapestries that hunch over like funeral overcoats, or elephantine ears.
Threads cascading from the surface resemble soft hair, or bristle like the pelt of a wild animal. There are even moments in this mesmerizing show where the textile color seems to shift from copper to silver to deepest black as if the tapestry was somehow alive.
Abakanowicz was born into an aristocratic family of Tatar heritage who lived in the countryside. Their circumstances were almost entirely reversed during the second world war, and then under the communist regime. But the enchanted forests of her childhood were thought a sufficiently neutral theme (very nearly folk art to some) for the censors to leave her alone.
In the 60s, Abakanowicz was mainly associated with the fiber art movement. But she was always pushing beyond established groups. Even her earliest weavings appear improvisational – loom-thinking, it was called – without any preparatory design and forging from textile straight towards sculpture. She saw fiber, she said, “as the basic element constructing the organic world… the tissue of plants, leaves and ourselves, our nerves, our genetic codes… We are fibrous structures.”
The breakthrough work in this show is Black, from 1966. The tapestry is still tethered to the wall, and approximately oblong in shape with a central leaf-shaped figure. But the weaving goes in every direction. Rough as a willow basket, coarse as a hessian sack, coiled in gleaming cordons, fleecy as the sheep it came from. The whole weaving is an infinite variety of fibers, eventually bodying forth in openings and folds that stand free of the surface.
Sisal hangs down like the locks of some raven-haired Rapunzel; here and there the linen warp is exposed, like the threads of a spider’s web. You can look through it, into its strange topography of ridges, ribbings and overlappings. You are not just seeing but entering this work.
Soon you could do so, quite literally. The artist began to hang her big independent Abakans, as a bewildered critic named them, together in what she called environments or “situations”, nowadays known as installations. A film shows Abakanowicz and her Polish contemporaries on a misty Baltic shoreline moving around inside these monolithic sculptures.
You could get right inside the cylindrical forms and look up, as if through a canopy of trees, to see the light above. You could stand in the embrace of her vast, garment-like sculptures. You could bury your nose in their softness.
Some of this is still possible at Tate Modern. You can peer into the crevices and hollows, watch the ever-changing shadow-play, step among the tendrils. And even if we can no longer crowd into her largest sculptures, they transmit an extraordinary warmth. Nor can I recall a more beautiful perfume in a gallery than that of her carded wool and peaty fleece.
Anyone who has ever worked with wool, never mind actual weaving, will immediately understand how staggering her technical achievement was. Abakanowicz turned the traditional warp in all directions. You even see it lying sideways in one work. She was capable of weaving in different materials, tensions and densities all at once, of piecing fragments seamlessly together. A beam of silver light in gossamer thread shines down through a canyon of knotted gray sisal, for instance, without any slackness. I have no idea how it is done.
Tate Modern has pierced arrow-slits in the corner of its galleries so you can always see what is to come. A lifesize photograph of the artist’s studio invites you into her world. Her words are written on the walls. The latest in a momentous series of one-woman revivals – Anni Albers, Natalia Goncharova, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Dora Maurer – the show is curated with the utmost sensitivity. Which is only what such an experimental pioneer as Abakanowicz deserves.