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Naum Gabo (American, born Russia. 1890–1977)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American sculptor of Belorussian birth. He was brought up in the Russian town of Bryansk, where his father owned a metallurgy business. Early paintings display his romantic and literary spirit, for example Self-portrait (c. 1907–10; artist’s family priv. col., see 1986 exh. cat., pl. 128), but in 1910 he went to the University of Munich to study medical and scientific subjects (1910–12), then philosophy and history of art (1912–14). The lectures of Heinrich Wölfflin and the writings of Henri Bergson were significant influences on him at this time. Gabo also studied engineering at the Technische Hochschule, Munich (1912–14), where there was a large collection of mathematical models. During World War I he took refuge in Norway (1914–17) and started working with his ‘stereometric method’ of construction, one of several techniques he adopted from such models, and through which he made a significant contribution to the development of the language of Constructivism. This enabled him to make images from sheet materials such as cardboard, plywood and galvanized iron, incorporating space in the body of the work and thereby denying the solidity of matter. Around this time he adopted the surname Gabo to distinguish himself from his brother, the artist antoine Pevsner.

Gabo’s first constructed works were figurative (e.g. Constructed Head No. 2, 1916; London, artist’s family priv. col., see 1986 exh. cat., p. 92), but following his return to Russia in 1917 he started to make non-figurative reliefs and towers from transparent plastic and glass. Column (144 mm; London, Tate), his most important architectonic sculpture of this period, was conceived in the winter of 1920–21 as a celluloid model. As he intended with most of his works, Gabo enlarged this construction several times. (There is a 1.05 m version in New York, Guggenheim, and a 1.93 m version in Humlebæk, Louisiana Mus.; both measurements include an integral base.) In 1920, in conjunction with an open-air exhibition on Tverskoy Boulevard, Gabo, together with his brother, published his Realistic Manifesto, summarizing his views on art. As with all Gabo’s writings this manifesto is poetically forceful and was highly influential. Rejecting Cubism and Futurism Gabo called for an art for a new epoch, a public art recognizing space and time as its basic elements and espousing construction and kineticism. These ideas are embodied in Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave, 1919–20; London, Tate).

In 1922 Gabo travelled to Berlin in connection with the Erste Russische Kunstausstellung, held at the Van Diemen Gallery, in which he was well-represented with about ten works. There he met Katherine S. Dreier, his first important patron, and he soon came into contact with many artists and architects, such as Hans Richter, Kurt Schwitters, Hugo Häring, the brothers Hans and Wassili Luckhardt and artists of the Bauhaus. Throughout the 1920s Gabo continued to employ glass, metal (sometimes painted black or white) and plastics in his works, which remained architectonic or monumental in conception (for illustration see Plastic). He also designed a stage set for Diaghilev’s ballet La Chatte (model in London, Tate), first performed in Monte Carlo in 1927, and in 1931 he submitted plans to the competition for the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow. In 1930 he had an important one-man show at the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hannover, and in 1931 he became a member of the group Abstraction–Création in Paris.

By 1933 Gabo had moved to Paris, but in 1935 he made a brief visit to London, where he settled in 1936. There he made friends with Herbert Read, and with Leslie Martin and Ben Nicholson, with whom in 1937 he edited Circle. Through Dr John Sisson, Gabo was introduced to perspex, the new plastic developed by Imperial Chemical Industries that he employed in some of his best-known works, such as Translucent Variation on Spheric Theme (1937; New York, Guggenheim) and Spiral Theme (1941; London, Tate). Gabo made over 20 free-standing variations on the basic ‘spheric’ theme, differing in size and materials. More elaborate developments include Model for ‘Spheric Construction: Fountain’ (1937/8; London, artist’s family priv. col.), Bas-relief on a Circular Surface, Semi-spheric (1938; Paris, priv. col.) and Construction in Space, with Net (1952; London, artist’s family priv. col.). During World War II Gabo lived in Cornwall (1939–46), and there he started using nylon monofilament as in his works entitled Linear Construction in Space (e.g. Linear Construction in Space No. 1 (variation), 1942–3; London, Tate). Materials were in short supply during the war, but Gabo was able to continue to paint and carve. In 1943 he was commissioned through the Design Research Unit to design a car for the Jowett Car Company. In 1946 Gabo moved to the USA, where he became a close friend of Lewis Mumford. Following a major exhibition of his works in New York in 1948, he began to receive commissions for public projects. The first of these, for the Esso Building at the Rockefeller Center (1949), New York, remained unexecuted, but in 1951 he completed his Construction Suspended in Space for the Baltimore Museum of Art. There followed an important commission for the Bijenkorf Construction in Rotterdam (h. c. 25 m, 1956–7), through which Gabo intended to celebrate the reconstruction of the city following World War II. Ultimately related to the ‘spheric theme’, this work was developed directly from his entry to the international competition for which he submitted a Model for a Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner (410 mm, 1952; London, Tate), which gained one of the five second prizes. In the early 1950s Gabo took up wood-engraving, which he used until the mid-1970s to explore the same concepts as his sculpture (see 1986 exh. cat., p. 190).

Gabo’s work does not fit simply into the machine aesthetic. As he wrote in 1957: ‘Not the Machine—the creative spirit of man is my inspiration’. An artist of diverse interests, Gabo was fascinated and influenced by scientific and mathematical images, whether visually or verbally described, and particularly by the enigmas of science. While he valued supremely the autonomy of the artist, he also sought to integrate not only sculpture, architecture and design but also art and science. Thus he felt that his ‘constructive idea’ could serve as a philosophy not only for art but for life in general.

Colin C. Sanderson
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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