After her father escaped the October Revolution, and after her parents fled deeper into Poland from the Russian Invasion of 1920, Magdalena Abakanowicz was born. At the age of nine she saw the Third Reich sink its talons into her homeland. At the age of fifteen, she watched the Nazi captors relinquish her country to the Red Army as the tyrannical beasts of her past caught up with her. At twenty, she entered the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. There her art fell out to the canting confines of Socialist Realism. She grew up where ideology tried to hurdle and sprawl into reality. Socialism was real, or so it tried to be. But art—that was real, too. Why shouldn’t it be given the circumstances?
If Stalin sculpted his USSR under the rapture of his Marx, his muse—the people’s muse—Abakanowicz worked under the dragon breath of a tyrannical anti-muse. She became well regarded for her sprawling installation sculptures—crowds of tall, hollow figures marching together with no heads, with skin like tree bark, gnarled and tough. This was her Socialist Realism. It was a big hit. She’s now considered one of the most influential female artists of the past century. Her headless walkers roam across the globe from Poland to Paris to Princeton.
Yes, they were here for five whole years. Her installation, “Big Figures,” features sixteen headless bodies seemingly stretched from a big hot batch of black tar taffy. They stood frozen in mid-step right on the front lawn of the Princeton University Art Museum, and last June, their feet finally left the grass, and they left—back to the hands of their generous lenders, a certain Mr. and Mrs. Fisher. Marge D’Amico, museum docent, recalls these headless giants seemed to be wearing “Dr. Denton pajamas,” referring to the sheared bronze uniform enveloping each figure. I wonder if Donald and Doris Fisher took a liking to their shiny sartorial air. The Fishers, after all, founded Gap, Inc, in addition to owning Banana Republic and Old Navy.
Chances are you did not notice those beautiful bronze onesies, but were rather flummoxed by them, or made their large torso-ed, spindle legged, and headless figures out to be a bunch of tall teeth, or missed them altogether. Notwithstanding, the absence of these figures conjures certain nostalgia in many. The “headless dudes,” so colloquially called by some, were a definite campus landmark. Kids lay out in the sun beside them. Students dressed them up in holiday costumes. In the dead of night, they gave life to McCosh Walk. Students walked past these frozen marchers everyday, and ever so often, a student walked with these sculptures—these headless titans marching forever with skin so tough that not even Socialist Realism could tear them down, all in search of their heads.
The “Big Figures” left a big void that must be filled. Professor James Steward, Director of the Art Museum, and with University Architect Ron McCoy co-chairs the newly instated Campus Art Committee, which was conceived for this very purpose. In an email, Steward expresses the difficulties in choosing a new, ideally permanent, installation for the Museum lawn. The new installation must synergize with the architecture and landscape and with the ceremonial pomp of McCosh Walk and its high thru traffic. Further, there is the need for the installation to emblemize the historical and functional identities of the site. There is an extra structural consideration as the site is right above a storage facility, which limits the maximum load. There is also the obvious requirement that the work be a bona fide stunner, not to mention that the artist be, ideally, vastly acclaimed—a legend. The precedent to “Big Figures” was Picasso’s very own “Head of a Woman” after all. Given all these considerations, choosing even a stopgap would prove difficult. Steward admits finding an extant work fulfilling all these factors is a herculean task: “Taken together, these and other factors have led us to feel that ultimately we will need to commission a work for the site.” But who will be the artist that will restore the glory gone? A commission will be joining with a “very august group of artists already contained within the University’s Putnam Collection—including Henry Moore, Jacques Lipchitz, and many others…At this point, it would be premature and potentially misleading to offer names of candidate artists, since there are many—female and male, U.S. based and international artists—and any list would be partial.”
Might we look forward to Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapping the Princeton Art Museum and McCormick Hall in miles of cellophane paper? I hope so.