A Knitter’s Day Trip: Every Tangle of Thread and Rope
I’ll be the first to admit this exhibit isn’t strictly about knitting. But it’s not not about knitting either.
Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017) made a world of hand-dyed sisal, wool, feathers, fur, horsehair, and string and I walked through it this past week. Her retrospective Every Tangle of Thread and Rope at Tate Modern has already garnered glowing reviews from every newspaper in Britain.
It’s mainly weaving, so why would a knitter go?
That’s what I asked the man standing beside me who seemed equally stunned by a giant woven and knotted presence suspended from the ceiling.
“Do you think that’s knitting?” I asked him out of nowhere—my grandmother says I’ve never met a stranger. We were both photographing a kind of bubble of knitted sleeves and a false pocket on this edifice.
“I’d call it knitting,” he said.
“Me, too,” I said, and then I asked him, “Do you knit?”
He said, “I’m a knitwear designer, actually.” Then I learned that he designs for a major haute couture label which I promised not to mention.
“What do you like about this?” I asked him.
“Everything,” he said and we continued to take pictures and wonder about the tools used to make the knitted appendages belonging to these massive textile beings.
Abakanowicz’s textile creatures were so revolutionary that they bear her name; they’re called Abakans—like Lord Raglan and his famous sleeve.
But let me go back a bit.
Abakanowicz was born in Poland to an aristocratic family whose fortunes declined and whose lives became increasingly precarious during the Second World War. Her mother was attacked by a German soldier and lost an arm. This seems tragically poignant, as if Abakanowicz was determined to use both of her own arms relentlessly to the point of exhaustion to cosmically balance what happened to her mother.
Sometimes Abakanowicz struggled to lift and manipulate the things she made. She tied, twisted, dyed, and bound string until she outstripped her own strength. She also outstripped the tolerance of post-Second World War Poland where repressive regimes came and went and her artwork was deemed, depending on the political weather, anti-social.
In her early Work the artist worked without a cartoon and used radical materials to produce flat tapestries on traditional looms.
She wove and constructed without the “cartoon” which normally sits behind or beneath a loom to guide the artist making the finished work. She let the materials dictate the “picture” much like the way an experienced knitter will take bobbins of yarn left from previous projects and knit them into an enviable sweater. Her hands knew what her spirit wanted.
Abakan Forest “dark” room
And spirit is the key word because after taking in two rooms of wall-hung freestyle tapestries, I turned a corner into a deep forest of Abakans and felt the kind of reverence that one usually associates with visiting a cathedral.
Abakan Forest “bright” room
I spoke at length with one of the Tate docents who said that each docent is rotated to a different room every half an hour. She—a clinical psychologist by day—loved being assigned to the Abakan installation because she saw how time after time visitors changed when they entered the space. They became quiet, meditative, they walked more softly, spoke in whispers, and their shoulders seemed to fall and relax.
There is something profoundly comforting and simultaneously striking about these textiles. It seems to me it’s what we ask of textiles every day. We want them to move and stretch with us. We want them to be a second skin. We want to feel cozy in them and enveloped by them. But we also want them to make a statement.
In Abakanowicz’s lifetime, visitors could slip inside the Abakans, but alas no more. So, imagine how moving it was to watch a film of Abakanowicz sliding inside these sculptures like a human shuttle, folding, pushing, coaxing these creatures into the shape she wanted her audience to see. She was blocking her sweaters and hats on a gargantuan scale. And she wanted us to feel they should be just right, fit the space just right, fit her vision just right.
The colors of the Abakans span from absorbing black to vibrant yellows. They took me back to my own natural dye tests during lockdown. They beam colors that nature would recognize as part of its DNA. The hues resonated with each other from one sculpture to the next like a Mark Rothko painting, but one through which you could travel. Sunflower, dahlia, and onion skin against madder and Tyrian purple, marls and heathers. And these colors were fashioned into intimations of tree roots, veins, and the alveoli of lungs.
You feel these sculptures could awaken and inhale with the deepest of breaths. And nearly every floor to ceiling three dimensional tapestry held a secret cache of knitting which seemed to act as sleeves, hearts, lungs, ruffles, or pockets for holding mysteries.
Abakanowicz wrote, “Strange powers dwelled in the woods and the lakes that belonged to my parents. Apparitions and inexplicable forces had their laws and their spaces.” We are deeply fortunate that she had the vision to recreate this childhood experience of wonder and curiosity for us using the humblest of materials—string.
Look for Abakanowicz-inspired haute couture on the Paris runways when the next winter collection is unveiled. I know of at least one designer who is knitting up some wearable Abakans as I write.
The author’s husband Graham Frear sketched her talking in front of the Abakans with her interlocutor, the knitwear designer
Magdalena Abakanowicz: Every Tangle of Thread and Rope runs at Tate Modern in London until May 21.
P.S. While you’re there, see the small display of unusual knitted works by the late radical Italian artist Marisa Merz in the permanent collection.