Russian-American Sculptor, Designer, and Architect
Waterbury, Connecticut, USA
Summary of Naum Gabo
Naum Gabo's structurally complex, mesmeric abstract sculptures cast a shadow over the whole of 20th-century art, while his life was that of the quintessential creative émigré, as he moved from country to country seeking new contexts for his work, in flight from war and repression. As a young man in post-Revolutionary Russia, Gabo was closely associated with Constructivism, which sought to blur the boundaries between creative and functional processes. He incorporated principles from engineering and architecture into his creative explorations, and used his sculptures to describe and demonstrate new scientific concepts such as Einstein's space-time relativity. Gabo worked through various movements and ideas, eventually settling in the United States after the Second World War. Like all the most important artists, his work and his life were fundamentally shaped by the era in which he lived, and helped to define that era in turn.
- Gabo believed that art should have an explicit and functional value in society. As a student of engineering and architecture, he emulated and demonstrated cutting-edge techniques from those fields in his sculptural constructions, and designed complex architectural plans himself. This element of his work, initially developed to mould the mindset of the new Soviet citizen, influenced a whole paradigm within 20th-century art: the idea of dissolving the boundaries between artistic and functional processes.
- One of Gabo's most important discoveries was that empty space could be used as an element of sculpture. Constructing his sculptures from sets of interlocking components rather than carving or moulding them from inert mass allowed him to incorporate space into his work more easily. Intended to demonstrate ideas from modern geometry and physics, Gabo's use of space within sculpture stands alongside Stéphane Mallarmé's incorporation of page-space into poetry, and John Cage's incorporation of silence into music, in epitomizing a modern, secular concern with expressing what is unknown as well as what is known: with void as well as form.
- By incorporating moving parts into his sculpture, or static elements which strongly suggested movement, Gabo's work stands at the forefront of a whole artistic tradition, Kinetic Art, which uses art to represent time as well as space. Indeed, his Kinetic Construction of 1920 is often considered the first work of Kinetic Art. From this point onwards, Gabo's work incorporated or suggested what he called "kinetic rhythms", reminding the viewer of a quintessentially modern discovery first made by Albert Einstein, that time and space only exist in relation to each other.
Biography of Naum Gabo
Gabo was born Naum Pevsner in the small Russian town of Bryansk, the sixth of seven brothers and sisters. The Pevsners were a large, tightknit, patriarchal middle-class family, with a strong and charismatic father, Boris, and mother, Fanny. Though Boris was Jewish, the siblings were brought up Christian through the influence of their Russian Orthodox grandmother, and Naum would distance himself from his Jewish roots for much of his life. Boris Pevsner owned a successful metal works and rolling mill, which supplied many of the railways around Russia. It was by this means that the young Naum became familiar with many of the industrial materials that would later inspire his work, while two of his older brothers pursued careers in engineering. A third, Natan (later Antoine), four years older than Naum, became a successful artist, and was a significant influence on his younger brother, whose artistic curiosity was beginning to emerge through a love of poetry and early attempts at sculpture, informed by the Tsarist art that dominated his cultural landscape.
Important Art by Naum Gabo
Constructed Head No. 21 is a figurative bust, one of four similar works that characterize Gabo's early career, created during his period of refuge in Norway during World War One. Constructed from flat planes of intersecting plywood this Madonna-like figure alludes to the icon paintings that Gabo would have seen in Russian Orthodox domestic interiors, traditionally placed high up in the corner of the room, as if watching over the inhabitants below. The appearance of the busts shifts and modulates constantly, based on viewing angle, lighting, and other ambient factors.
During his travels to Paris in 1912-13, Gabo had seen Picasso and Braque's paintings - the artists were still in their so-called Analytical Cubis" phase - and in Norway he began to apply similar concepts of breaking up the picture plane into three-dimensional work - consider Picasso's Woman with Pears (1909), for example. Using his engineering training, Gabo rejected traditional sculptural techniques of carving and moulding, instead using processes closer to architectural construction, building up his sculptures from interlocking components. This meant he could incorporate empty spaces into his sculptures. In generating the impression of volume in empty space, Gabo was responding to contemporary scientific theories stressing the "disintegration between solids and surrounding space".
Constructed Head No. 2 is one of a set of early figurative works by Gabo now seen to have revolutionized sculpture. His ingenious extension of Cubist painting techniques into the realm of sculpture predicated much abstract sculpture of the following decades. By working with the technical precision of an engineer or architect, and by illustrating new scientific concepts, Gabo predicted the functionalist aesthetic of the nascent Constructivist movement - the work of Alexander Rodchenko and others - and of Concrete Art, Kinetic Art, and other post-Constructivist movements of the mid-to-late-20th century. His use of empty space as a substantive element of sculpture is echoed in later works by British artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.
This is a relatively simple construction by Gabo's standards, consisting of a plain steel rod affixed to a wooden base. But when set in motion by an electric motor, the oscillations of the rod generate a delicately complex image of a freestanding, twisting wave. Kinetic Construction was Gabo's first motorized sculpture, demonstrating his pioneering integration of engineering techniques and scientific principles into art. It was first exhibited in 1920, to great critical acclaim.
Kinetic Construction was devised partly to demonstrate the aesthetic concepts proclaimed in Gabo and Pevsner's Realistic Manifesto. In particular, the piece seems to enact the idea that "kinetic rhythms" should be "affirmed ... as the basic forms of our perception of real time", associable both with Einsteinian space-time relativity and (probably more directly) Henri Bergson's conception of time as non-linear. "Standing Wave" is a physician's term, used to describe exactly the kind of static-seeming patterns of movement, generated by the passage of energy through certain structures, which the sculpture creates. The construction was therefore intended precisely to demonstate a scientific principle, and as a more sophisticated, scientifically accurate rendering of motion than the Futurists had managed with their rather excitable paintings. Recalling the creation of the sculpture in impoverished, war-torn Moscow, where most of the factories were shut, Gabo stated that he visited the mechanical workshop of the Polytechnicum Museum, where he requisitioned an old electric door bell whose internal electromagnet became the mechanical component of the piece. Later versions of Kinetic Construction were more complex, incorporating a switch button, and built from more sophisticated materials.
Expressing a new, intellectually scrupulous approach to the fascination with movement which characterized avant-garde art of this period, Gabo created a work which stands at the forefront of Kinetic Art. Artists such as Alexander Calder, Jean Tinguely, Victor Vasarely, and Bridget Riley all worked in the wake of Gabo's pioneering experiments. Moreover, in rejecting the notion of sculpture as weighty, monolithic and solid, and in emphasizing that space is no less tangible than solid matter, this delicate construction predicts a number of elementary paradigms in modern sculpture more generally. At the same time, it is perhaps the most literal of Gabo's Kinetic sculptures - he called it more of an "explanation of the idea than a Kinetic sculpture itself" - and he progressed from here to works that suggested rather than embodied movement, through their dynamic arrangement of form and space.
Column is a freestanding vertical tower made from two transparent, interlocking, rectangular planes that rise from a circular base of dark steel. Set within the Perspex planes are opaquely colored, geometric floating shapes, and an open ring. It is one of a number of works created during the early 1920s which demonstrate Gabo's departure from the early, figurative style of the Constructed Heads, and his movement towards a more pure abstraction.
Works such as Column were in most cases only definitively realized after Gabo left Russia in 1922 for Germany: where, amongst other things, he had easier access to materials. But this piece has its origins in the heady post-revolutionary atmosphere of early 1920s Moscow, where sculptors were attempting to apply the abstract visual vocabulary of the Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich to three-dimensional art. Such efforts were galvanized by the formalisation of ideas associated with Constructivism, partly through the creation of the First Working Group of Constructivists in Moscow in March 1921. This group idealized the principles of engineering and architecture, and wanted art to have a similarly functional purpose. Though not a part of this group, and opposed to aspects of their utilitarian aesthetic, Gabo was breathing the same creative air, and like the Working Group artists, was inspired by the demonstration of modern engineering principles in Vladimir Tatlin's majestic Model for a Monument to the Third International (1920).
The use of industrial materials like metal and glass in works like Column was a way of emulating mechanical and architectural processes, as was the angular precision of the design. The fact that it was intended as a model for a building exemplifies the Constructivist concern with giving art a functional purpose. At the same time, Gabo's interest in transparent materials like glass and plastic - which was profound and enduring from this period onwards - reflected his ongoing fascination with depicting volume independently of mass. The two interlocking vertical planes in this piece, for example, generate a rectangular form without creating a solid rectangle. For Gabo, sculptures like Column, which gave a certain impression of weightlessness, "appeal[ed] to minds and feelings more than crude physical senses".
In retrospect, works like Column set the tone for aspects of Gabo's work throughout the rest of his career. But they are really significant in epitomizing a moment in the history of modern art when it seemed that avant-garde painters, sculptors and architects might have a role to play in the construction of a new society. The abstract compositional vocabulary of works like Column was not abstract for the sake of it, but was intended as a means of defining the new ways in which Soviet citizens might feel, perceive, and act within the world around them.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Naum Gabo
- Gabo on Gabo: Texts and Interviews Paperback - April, 2002By Naum Gabo (Author), Christina Lodder (Editor), Martin Hammer (Editor)
- The Realistic ManifestoBy Naum Gabo
- Constructing Modernity: The Art & Career of Naum GaboBy Martin Hammer, Naum Gabo, Christina Lodder
- Naum Gabo: Sixty Years of ConstructivismBy Naum Gabo, Steven A. Nash, Jörn Merkert, Colin C. Sanderson
- Naum Gabo: The constructive idea; sculpture, drawings, paintings, monoprintBy South Bank Board, 1987
- Transcript of interview of Naum Gabo by Gunnar Jespersen
- Ossip Zadkine and Naum Gabo in Rotterdam