Space man mirroring nature

Constructing Modernity
November 23, 2001

Martin Hammer and Christina Lodder have produced the definitive work on the sculptor Naum Gabo. Their joint authorship is seamless. Constructing Modernity is indispensable to anyone pursuing Russian art, constructivism or the relationship between art, science and engineering.

Towards the end of his life, I had a letter from Gabo in reply to my queries about constructivism. He advised me to steer clear of Alexander Rodchenko, whose circle in Russia had so vehemently embraced the communist cause in the 1920s. They too called themselves constructivists, but their radical nihilism led them to call for the death of art, an aim despised by Gabo. For him, art was like physics: a form of knowledge in itself independent of politics, and a concise, repeatable insight into the structure of the world. As an artist he also sought the place of human beings within it. Leaving Russia with other Russian artists in 1922, taking the so-called First Russian Art Exhibition to Berlin, he abandoned what Camilla Gray so memorably called "the great experiment" in which artists, playwrights, musicians, film-makers and architects responded to the communists' demand for a new culture.

In the West, Gabo steadily gained recognition as a powerful force for constructive art, but in Russia he was scarcely mentioned. Even in the West his fame suffered in his later years, when the search for more political art pointed art historians in other directions. Hammer and Lodder have caught the tide of change in art-historical writing. Their book defines Gabo's position as crucial to the movement, but it is all the more authoritative for their reserve in expressing opinion. Instead they are comprehensively informed and explicit: every available fact and aspect of Gabo's life is here. Three hundred illustrations survey his work and every project is discussed; excerpts from letters provide Gabo's own voice throughout the text.

Gabo, and his brother the sculptor Antoine Pevsner, had a huge impact on European and American art. They perceived beyond painting, sculpture and architecture an art of construction. Assembling materials together, they abandoned illusion for synthetic constructions complete in themselves.

Having studied anatomy and engineering, Gabo saw, in the bones of a ribcage, the iron struts of a bridge or in the fluted ridges of a scallop shell, structures common to natural and to human construction. Telescopes, microscopes, radios and other technical equipment revealed symmetries that he could see in petals or crystals. With this in mind, Gabo developed the sculpture of new materials, mathematical structures and complex symmetry.

He began with figures built from flat planes of card. With these modest works made in exile in Scandinavia during the first world war, he first began to separate volume from mass, neither modelling nor carving but constructing figures: a feature of almost all his work. In a Moscow street in 1920, Gabo and Pevsner launched their brief career under the new regime with an exhibition of constructed sculptures, publishing also the Realistic Manifesto , full of visionary fervour calling for artists to reject the excitement of fast cars for the greater silent speed of light.

What followed was more radical and independent. Gabo used metals, glass and translucent plastic (some of the latter sculptures are now unstable and demand great care). Refusing to distinguish sculpture from architecture, he constructed crystalline, transparent forms that could stand as objects in a gallery, as street monuments or as architecture.

Throughout, Gabo sought materials, symmetries and shapes that would minimise the solid, closed mass of his sculptures. He wanted to shape space with intricate shapes and flowing surfaces. Certain structures emerged from a single point expanding into the air around them. His series called Spheric Theme (1937-39) was built from just two identical, curved elements around a central void.

Some of them are robust enough to challenge buildings in the street, as with his Bijenkorf construction in Rotterdam; others show great delicacy. As a student visiting the old Tate Gallery, I once stepped back and bumped a plinth with a Gabo sculpture perched on it. As it rolled to left and right, I was not confident of catching it. Eventually it stabilised, and I left more aware of its fragile beauty.

In the 1930s, Gabo moved to England, and ultimately to the United States, working closely with architects and designers as well as artists. He joined Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and others in Hampstead and at St Ives in Cornwall; he joined groups associated with abstraction; and he contributed to the first and only number of Circle , the journal edited by the architect Leslie Martin. Gabo even made designs for the Jowett Javelin car. Gabo's major works are now in the Tate Modern.

The book's biographical aspects give a rich insight into Gabo's aims and character. One chapter, "Brothers in art", deals with the allegiances, competitiveness, financial stresses and successes of the three brothers: Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, both sculptors, and their youngest brother Alexei Pevsner, a career scientist in the Soviet Union.

Gabo maintained that infinite space begins anywhere and everywhere. If this sounds mystical, recall that he lived in the age of atom splitting, when scientists as well as artists defined new conceptions of time and space. As a result, when Gabo built monuments, he built them for a serene, anonymous and universal future in which mankind and nature had a new relationship. If his sculpture resembles engineering, mathematics, crystallography and architecture, it also shows man's place alongside the spider's web, the shell and the flower.

John Milner is professor of art history, University of Newcastle.

Constructing Modernity: The Art and Career of Naum Gabo

Author - Martin Hammer and Christina Lodder
ISBN - 0 300 07688 6
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 528

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