Naum Gabo Artworks
Russian-American Sculptor, Designer, and Architect
Waterbury, Connecticut, USA
Progression of Art
Constructed Head No. 2
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.
Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave)
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.
Metal, wood and electric motor - Tate, London
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.
Perspex, wood, metal, and glass - Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Submitted Design for Palace of Soviets: Plan of Main Hall and Section
In 1931, towards the end of his decade in Germany, Gabo produced architectural plans for a government competition to create a new building in Moscow, commemorating the founding of the USSR. The Palace of the Soviets, according to the brief, was to consist of two auditoria holding 20,000 people in total, and would serve as a venue for mass meetings, demonstrations, and cultural events. Gabo's proposal was his first attempt at a fully realized architectural plan, and was a logical extrapolation of the aesthetics and techniques of his earlier, abstract sculptural works.
Gabo's plans, on which he worked feverishly for several months, consisted of two vast auditoria constructed from reinforced concrete, protruding from a towering central service block. The auditoria would be hollow, curvilinear, shell-like forms, absorbing stress evenly across their entire surfaces. This was an adventurous approach to the concept of load-bearing in architecture, a job that would generally be performed by distinct components such as beams or ribs. At the same time, the dynamic curves of the design represented a departure from the geometric aesthetics of the "International Style" then prevalent in modernist architecture, which Gabo had studied, and emulated in previous architectural sketches. In a sense, his approach to the project had developed out his earlier interest, as a sculptor, in the difference between mass and volume: how a space could be articulated without being filled with solid elements. The designs also bespoke Gabo's ongoing commitment, in spite of his awareness of the realities of Stalinism, to the Soviet project of constructing a new social realm. Indeed, he felt that the combination of his Russian roots and his recent experience with Western architectural and scientific principles would stand him in good stead in the competition. It is a sign of how much Russia had changed since Gabo's departure nine years previously that neither his proposal nor those of the other modernist architects who had entered were rewarded by the judges. The ultimate winner was the pompous, neo-classical design of architect Boris Iofan. Ultimately, construction on the Palace of the Soviets was aborted by the German invasion of Russia in 1941, and never resumed.
Gabo's striking designs for the Palace constitute one of his most important creative works, and are a remarkable achievement given his lack of architectural training. Moving away from the geometrical precision typical of 1920s modernist architecture - the work of Le Corbusier, for example - Gabo's work predicts later developments in the style, such as the curvilinear forms of Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer's designs for Brasília in the 1950s.
Pencil and india ink on paper - Shchusev State Museum of Architecture, Moscow
One of four models made in anticipation of two larger sculptures, Spiral Theme is a curvilinear, transparent construction with a central vertical element, reminiscent of the shells Gabo found on the beaches around St. Ives, his home from 1939 to 1946. Key to this work, considered by many critics to be amongst Gabo's finest, are the harmonious, organic rhythms generated by the interplay of curved lines, and the complex patterns of reflected light which shift and reconfigure as the viewer moves around the sculpture.
Spiral Theme was created at a time when Gabo was deeply concerned about the threat of German invasion of the UK, and the fate of his family in Russia, which had already been invaded by Germany in June 1941. The Cornish coastline was a source of emotional solace; since moving to St. Ives, the Gabos had collected shells from the nearby beaches. Then, in the summer of 1941, art patron Margaret Gardiner offered Gabo £25 to produce a work for her partner, the scientist John Bernal. Drawing inspiration from his natural surroundings - a relatively new creative approach for Gabo - and from a series of photographs he had made that summer of light patterns reflected from shiny surfaces, Gabo created the first maquette for Spiral Theme. A larger version was created for the exhibition New Movements in Art: Contemporary Work in England, held at the London Museum in Spring 1942. The larger versions of Spiral Theme arose from Gabo's discovery, in 1935, of a new compositional material, Perspex, which had increased flexibility when heated, and was more transparent than the celluloid he had used in earlier works. In a country starved of resources, Gabo had to rely on a friend who worked for Imperial Chemicals to provide these materials.
With the four versions of Spiral Theme Gabo discovered a new aspect of his creative register, the pieces' graceful, organic forms supplanting the geometric planes and precision of works such as Column, and perhaps reflecting his new creative friendships with artists like Barbara Hepworth. In essence, these pieces reflect a shift in Gabo's way of thinking about the depiction of empty space as volume, something he now felt was best achieved with spherical rather than angular forms. Spiral Theme also helped to ensure Gabo's reputation within Britain. His friend, the art critic Herbert Read, described it as expressing "the highest point ever reached by the aesthetic intuition of man". Public response to the work in the London Museum show was similarly positive, its lush organic forms perhaps providing a similar form of solace to a public in the grips of war as the shells of Carbis Bay had to its creator.
Cellulose, acetate and Perspex - Tate, London
Kinetic Stone Carving
Kinetic Stone Carving is one of Gabo's more anomalous and beautiful works, which would probably not have been created without the creative stimulus of his friendship with British abstract sculptors such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth during the late 1930s and 1940s.
The piece, carved from a single block of Portland Stone, was begun in London in 1936, shortly after Gabo's arrival in Britain following four unhappy years in Paris. Finished in St. Ives, it is one of a number of stone works from this period which represent Gabo's first experiments with the time-honored technique of direct carving. Inspired by his war-time associates Moore and Hepworth, Gabo wanted to see if he could generate the sense of kinetic rhythm which his work relied on whilst utilizing a more conventional approach to sculpture. Sure enough, the piece generates a marked contrast between the rough texture of the untreated stone and the two smooth, shelf-like planes chiselled into it, which snake horizontally around it, interconnecting when viewed from above. An illusion of movement is created as the smooth, wave-like shapes seem to advance and recede.
Kinetic Stone Carving represents a major shift from the Constructivist process of assembling individual elements which Gabo had helped to define earlier in the century. Showing his openness to new techniques and influences, Gabo inscribed dynamic rhythms into the surfaces of stone - his new-found fascination with this material would occupy him until his death.
Portland Stone - Tate, London
Linear Construction in Space No. 1
Linear Construction in Space, another work created during Gabo's time in St. Ives, is formed from nylon filament thread wound taut around a Perspex framework, creating an intricate web that encases a central void. Light catches the transparent plastic, generating a shimmering, ethereal-seeming structure, and creating the illusion of motion as the viewer moves around the sculpture.
Again, this sculpture represents a creative departure from Gabo's previous work. The use of space in the work, in this case the central void enclosed by the surrounding Perspex, becomes a newly prominent feature. This piece also represents the first time Gabo used string in his work, inspired by geometrical modelling techniques and by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore's sculptures, though Gabo applied this compositional material in a new way. For the British artists, the string is an addition to the dominant sculptural form, and is widely spaced, adding distinct lines and texture which contrast with solid mass. For Gabo, the string literally constitutes the surface of the sculpture, replacing his earlier practice of scoring lines onto Perspex. By using nylon, a new, synthetic material whose elasticity, smoothness and translucency defined the feel of this sculpture, Gabo again demonstrated his engagement his interest in using new, man-made compositional materials.
Created as a prototype for a site-specific, large-scale public sculpture intended to be placed near a Soviet textile factory, Linear Construction was conceived as a tribute to the artists and workers still attempting to construct a socialist society. In this sense, the work represented Gabo's lingering commitment to Soviet utopian ideals, even this late into Russia's socialist experiment. At the same time, the sculpture spoke to a spiritual concern which had been present in his aesthetic as far back as The Realistic Manifesto (1920), but which was now becoming more pronounced, with the central, framed space evoking ideas of the infinite and the cosmic.
Perspex and nylon - Tate, London
Linear Construction in Space No. 2
A reverse structure, and a kind of companion piece, to Linear Construction in Space No. 1, here nylon filament is tightly wrapped around two curvilinear, intersecting plastic planes shaped like a seed pod, creating a shimmering, reflective central form. As the string nears the central core, it is wound with increasing density, creating a mesmeric gradation of depth. The dynamic arrangement of string-work and Perspex creates three-dimensional light patterns which transform as the viewer moves around the object.
Linear Construction in Space No. 2 was Gabo's first significant work after his move to the USA in 1946. 20 separate versions exist of this sculpture, strung together in complex and delicate configurations, light catching the nylon filament to emphasize what Gabo called a "sense of immateriality". As in the earlier Linear Construction, space is contained without being filled, a new and elegant way of emphasizing volume independently of mass. But this second construction in the series also reflects Gabo's new ambitions for his work after moving to the centre of global economic and cultural power after the Second World War, where wealthy patrons and lucrative commissions were more readily available. The various versions of Linear Construction in Space No. 2 grew from Gabo's unrealized plans for two public sculptures to stand outside the new Esso Building at the Rockefeller Center in New York. His maquettes for that project, and the earliest version of Linear Construction 2, date from 1949; the version in the Tate Collection was specially constructed and donated by the artist in 1969, in memory of his friend Herbert Read (it was rebuilt in 1971).
Linear Construction in Space No. 2 is known to have been one of Gabo's favorite works, and it signals arguably the final significant creative shift of Gabo's career, taking him towards the large, public works of the 1950s-70s.
Plastic and nylon threads - Tate, London
Revolving Torsion Fountain
An elegant public artwork constructed from curved, stainless steel plates, designed for installation in a pool of water, Revolving Torsion represents the culmination of principles of Kinetic art first explored over 50 years earlier by Gabo's Kinetic Construction. The central abstract form completes a full rotation every 10 minutes, as plumes of water emerge with varying pressure from 140 holes on the steel wings of the fountain, assuming the form of curved planes.
Like lots of Gabo's later, large-scale public works, Revolving Torsion is the final realization of a theme previously expressed across a range of scales and materials, in this case as various plastic and metal models created from the late 1920s onwards: Model for Torsion (circa 1928), Torsion: Project for a Fountain (1960-64), etcetera. The plan for Revolving Torsion was hatched following a visit from Norman Reid, director of the Tate Gallery, to Gabo's studio in the USA. Gabo sent a maquette to London, where Reid located a sponsor to fund the construction of the final piece and find a suitable location. The sculpture was eventually installed as a fountain centre-piece for St. Thomas's Hospital, London in 1975, and in 1976 was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II during the hospital's official opening.
Once again, in this late work, Gabo makes new strides in his ongoing quest to find ways of expressing volume independently of mass. The introduction of a liquid element into the body of the sculpture is highly significant, with the surfaces formed by the jets of water replacing the string meshwork of the Linear Constructions in creating the illusion of solid matter. The steel used in the sculpture, in turn, was chosen by Gabo for its resemblance to water, with the result that the distinction between the two elements - liquid and solid - is blurred. This subtle interplay is complemented by the interplay of shadows on the pool of water below.
Stainless steel - St Thomas's Hospital, London