Magdalena Abakanowicz


The art market is already hot for works by Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, soon to be exhibited at the Tate Modern in London.

Born in 1930 in the suburbs of Warsaw, from a noble lineage that family legend traces back to Genghis Kahn, Magdalena Abakanowicz successively experienced the loss of the privileges of her social class, the Second World War (including the mutilation of her mother who was shot by a drunken soldier) and the extremely difficult living conditions in Poland’s post-war years. Tragedy and material hardship have both had a strong impact on the creative motivation of this internationally acclaimed artist.

Ambiguous sculptures

Magdalena ABAKANOWICZ quickly abandoned painting in order to adopt a direct interaction with matter. Working without preliminary sketches she was more interested in the physical reality of things. During her years of apprenticeship she worked with found materials such as woven fibers – an ambiguous and organic material – from which she created three-dimensional works with imposing volumes. These subsequently became installations based on “tapestry-sculptures” which she called “Abakans” after her surname.

Raw shapes individually pressed by hand with rough and sometimes rusty surfaces, the materials used are doomed to degradation suggesting their inherent corporality and the inevitable precariousness of the living. The upcoming exhibition at London’s Tate Modern (17 November 2022 – 21 May 2023) promises to bring together many of the biggest Abakans arranged like “a forest” within the 64-meter-long gallery of the Tate Modern’s new Blavatnik Building. The exhibition will explore the period of transformation in Abakanowicz’s practice when her woven forms, initially wall-hung, began to occupy three-dimensional spaces.

But the image that is most frequently associated with Abakanowicz’s work is that of headless bodies, made from hessian bags over steel frames, or reinforced with glue and resin. Often depicting human backs, these empty shells are particularly ambiguous. Do they represent subjugated men or men deep in prayer? Putting herself in the shoes of a visitor, the artist asks: “Is it Auschwitz? Is it a religious ceremony in Peru? Is it a Ramayana dance?”. A bit of all that perhaps…

Magdalena Abakanowicz’s powerful and unique work has enjoyed substantial visibility. We will not enumerate here her prizes and exhibitions; the list is too long. Suffice to say that she enjoyed early-career success after winning the Grand Prix at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1965, which immediately brought her international notoriety and allowed the start of a fruitful career. At the same time, she began teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań, Poland. In 1975, London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery gave her a first solo show and five years later she represented Poland at the Venice Biennale where she installed Embryology: 800 cocoons of different sizes made of hessian, gauze and hemp. This installation is now part of the Tate Modern’s permanent exhibition.

Supported for nearly 20 years by the prestigious Marlborough Gallery, her works are present in the most prestigious international cultural institutions, mainly in Europe and the United States.

Polski: Zespół Czarnych Form Organicznych, 1974.Official website of Art Museum in Łódź


The most sought-after artist on the Polish art market

Towards the end of the 1980s Abakanowicz diversified her materials, notably by creating bronze sculptures. This material, noble and resistant (especially to outdoor weather) was more suitable for private collectors than textile works, which require more rigorous attention in terms of conservation. In 2019, two years after the artist’s death on 20 April 2017 in Warsawa, a set of bronze headless figures crossed the million-dollar threshold for the first time fetching $2 million at Desa Unicum. Titled Caminando, it was the most expensive work of art ever sold in Poland.

Since the sale of Caminando, the Polish market has dispersed four works for higher sums, including a superb and historic portrait of a woman painted by Peter Paul Rubens in the 1620s and two installations by Magdalena Abakanowicz. Her auction record now stands at $3.3 million for a set of 50 resin and jute sculptures (Crowd III (50 figures), hammered at Desa Unicum, Warsaw, on 21 October 2021).

In December, the price increase was confirmed with the sale of Bambini (1998/99) representing 83 child-sized characters. The work had previously been exhibited at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (Abakanowicz on the Roof), at the Jardin du Palais-Royal in Paris, and in various other countries. Like Crowd III in October, Bambini fetched over $3 million in Warsaw, this time at Polswiss Art.

Magdalena Abakanowicz’s monumental works are now making their mark on the auction market and her transaction volume has multiplied by five in just a few years. Her annual auction turnover rose from $1.6 million in 2020 to $9.8 million 2021 and her price index recently jumped by more than 400%, a dynamic that looks set to continue with the upcoming exhibition at the Tate Modern. Having spent most of her life in Warsaw, the Polish market is the primary focus of exchange for her work and it therefore stands to gain from the growth in demand. Last year, her works generated more than $8 million in Poland, almost 6% of the country’s annual fine art auction turnover.

Magdalena Abakanowicz’s turnover by year


Magdalena Abakanowicz’s turnover by country


Illustration : M. Abakanowicz in her art room, 27 octobre 2010. Photo Krontola