PRINT November 1977

Naum Gabo, 1890–1977

GABO DIED ON AUGUST 23, 1977, at the age of 87, the last survivor of the great form-givers of 20th-century art.

Born Naum Neemia Pevsner in Briansk, Russia, into a large well-to-do family, he was sent to Munich to study medicine. But he turned to engineering and began to be interested in modern art. Gabo’s studies were interrupted by the German declaration of war on August 1, 1914. To avoid being interned in Germany as enemy aliens, he and his younger brother Alexei left the next day for Scandinavia. On the instructions of their father, who had sworn that none of his sons should fight for the czar, they settled for the duration of the war in Norway, where their painter brother, Antoine, later to become a sculptor also, was sent to join them in 1915. It was there by the fjords that Gabo’s reflections on art deepened and the foundations of his style were laid. He had brought drawings for a new kind of sculpture with him and was looking “for a place to lay the egg.” This would soon take the form of a human head constructed of open boxlike interior compartments with no outer shell.

These reflections had begun when Gabo went—at the urging of Heinrich Wölfflin, whose course in art history he had attended in Munich—on foot1 to Italy at the age of 23. Arriving in Florence, Gabo was dismayed by Renaissance sculpture because of its emphasis on mass, with closed surfaces concealing structure and interior space. This experience started his engineering mind on an exploration of structural forms that would leave the surface open and the interior visible.

Gabo recalled that, in Norway, “standing beside a fjord the sky was above and the sky was below and you were feeling as if you were between two skies. The sense of space was so intense that it helped me in my imagination to go on with that work.” Later he was to write in the Realistic Manifesto, “Look at our real space—what is it, if not continuous depth.” He was also to say that space was the material of which sculpture was to be made.

In the winter of 1915–16 Gabo began to put these ideas into concrete form. With small pieces of cardboard glued and reglued together he began to construct figurative images by means of carefully planned intersecting planes which formed lidless, empty compartments. There were no closed surfaces. The outer contours showed the configuration, while the open structure revealed all the interior space. Each plane, by intersecting with another, strengthened the one it crossed—a familiar engineering concept. So with the minimum of material and the maximum of controlled and revealed space, a sculpture was achieved.

That winter, with slow, persevering and repetitious cutting, and gluing, folding and unfolding, these efforts culminated in a small study of a girl’s head. It was not “abstract,” it was not cubist. The contours delineated a young girl, rather swan-necked, with sloping shoulders reminiscent of Art Nouveau, and with a marked contrapposto in the turning and tilting of the head upon the shoulders. “I knew that, in order to be convincing, my image must be such that every person looking at it should recognize it as a work of nature. It must be a human figure. It took me a whole year and more to realize my conception . . .” The planes of which this image was composed radiated mostly from the center of the volume; thus, as one circled the sculpture, the eye could penetrate and measure all the space the head encompassed. (This head was eventually reconstructed on a monumental scale in 1966; there were three versions; one is now in the Tate Gallery, London.)

If Cézanne found in Nature the sphere, the cone and the cylinder, Gabo found his inspiration in the supporting structure of bridges, ships, and even certain plants, without their concealing envelope. And now, conscious of his discovery and confident in his ability to use it, Naum Pevsner in this year of 1915 began signing his work “Gabo.” During 1915 and 1916 he worked on these structures, on heads, on a torso—first in cardboard, then translated into wood, and finally into metal.

In 1917 Gabo returned to Russia and involved himself at once with the avant-garde in Moscow, which included Tatlin, Malevich, Rodchenko and, later, Lissitzky. The terms Constructivism and Suprematism were already current. To make his nonpolitical position clear in the disputes among his fellow artists, Gabo wrote his Realistic Manifesto in 1920, which his brother Antoine Pevsner also signed. This manifesto was entitled “Realistic” in the sense of “practical”: “The word realism was used by all of us constantly, because we were convinced that what we were doing represented a new reality.”

Gabo wrote the Manifesto out by himself. His younger brother Alexei later described that day: “I remember that early summer morning in July when I rose to find Gabo still sitting at his desk and writing without cease. I watched him but did not bother him with questions. I knew what he was writing about but I was amazed that he had not slept a wink all night. He read out the whole manifesto to me with great feeling. I was the first to hear of it. . . . Later when Gabo read the manifesto again, this time to Antoine as well as me, Antoine asked permission to sign his own name too.”2 The Commissar of Printing and Publications was Trotsky’s sister (married to Kamenev, a member of the Council of Ministers who was later executed by Stalin). Paper was very scarce, and it was necessary to get her permission to print the 5,000 copies. The commissar was hostile to the art of Gabo’s group, but when she saw the word “Realistic” in the title she was said to have exclaimed: “at last we have a reasonable group of people who are calling for realism; I allow it.” So it was pasted all over the walls of Moscow, to be read by thousands, and discussed, attacked and defended.

Gabo himself summarized later: “The most important idea in the manifesto was the assertion that art has its absolute, independent value and a function to perform, whether capitalistic, socialistic, or communistic—art will always be alive as one of the indispensable expressions of human experience and as an important means of communication.” The Manifesto consisted mostly of rejections of long-accepted assumptions. Gabo renounced, in turn: (1) color as accidental and superficial; (2) the descriptive value of line in favor of line as direction of static forces; (3) volume, in favor of depth, as the only pictorial and plastic form in space; (4) mass in sculpture, in favor of the same volume constructed of planes; and (5) the thousand-year-old delusion of static rhythm, in favor of “kinetic rhythms as the basic forms of our perception of real time.” These concepts formed the core of the widening movement generally called Constructivism.

There was, meanwhile, increasingly strong opposition to abstract art in Soviet Russia. “The government was only tolerating all of us,” Gabo recalled. In 1922 many studios were closed, and the two Pevsner brothers went to Berlin.

Outside recognition of post-revolutionary Russian art began in 1922 with an exhibition in Berlin. Germany had only just failed to follow the Russian Revolution with one of its own, and the Weimar Republic was on cordial terms with the still hopeful Russians. This exhibition, at the Galerie van Diemen, presented most phases of Russian art of that time, but it was the Constructivist component which attracted the most notice. Gabo’s contributions were the heads and torso brought from Norway, and his new Kinetic ConstructionStanding Wave. This revolutionary sculpture of 1920 opens the epoque of kinetic art,3 of “four-dimensional” sculpture, of “time as a new element in art.” Gabo kept this sculpture with him; then in 1965, after his first major retrospective exhibition—which toured Europe, ending in London—he gave it to the Tate Gallery.

Gabo spent most of next 10 years in Berlin. Germany had been the first country to recognize the Soviet government and to grant visas to Russians. The Germans were responsive to Gabo’s art, especially in Weimar: it was the time of the early Bauhaus, before it moved to Dessau. Gabo was now known and was able to live in Germany on his work. In Berlin he broadened his use of industrial materials in sculptural themes related to architectural projects, including a number of Columns and Towers. Of one of these he wrote: “I consider this Column the culmination of that search . . . for an image which would fuse the sculptural element with the architectural element into one unit.”

Gabo had some contact with Moholy-Nagy, then teaching the “Foundation Course” at the Bauhaus. The latter had seen the van Diemen exhibition in Berlin and had authored a manifesto of his own reflecting some of Gabo’s ideas. Moholy then introduced kinetic problems into the Foundation Course. Gabo never taught at the Bauhaus,4 but he lectured there in 1928 and contributed an article (“Gestaltung?”) to Number 4 of the second series of “Bauhaus Books.”

In 1932 Gabo left Berlin “for political reasons”: storm troopers had come to his studio. He departed for Paris and spent three less than happy years there, in poverty that was sometimes extreme. He joined the group “Abstraction-Création” and wrote articles for their publication. Kandinsky and Mondrian were fellow members.

In 1936 he went to England—as did Mondrian, soon after—where he stayed for the next decade. He knew Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, and also Herbert Read, who became his closest friend. With Nicholson and the architect Leslie Martin, Gabo edited in 1937 Circle, a journal for abstract art, architecture and design.

In 1946 he came to America and soon found a house in Connecticut, an hour and a half outside New York. Gabo had already exhibited in America a decade earlier, at the Chicago Arts Club. And he had been in contact with James Johnson Sweeney and Julian Levy, who in 1938 had mounted an exhibition which travelled to Vassar College and the Wadsworth Atheneum. His position in the history of 20th-century art was already assured. He was invited to undertake large projects and to exhibit widely in the United States and in Europe. As a result of Sweeney’s earlier efforts, he showed jointly with Pevsner at the Museum of Modern Art in 1948 and again, this time with Josef Albers, at the Arts Club in Chicago in 1952. He received second prize in the international competition for a Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner in 1953. Walter Gropius, who had come from the Bauhaus to the Graduate School of Design in Harvard, asked him to teach there. In 1954 Gabo was commissioned to design a huge sculpture to stand in front of the Bijenkorf Department Store in Rotterdam, a building designed by Marcel Breuer, who also was from the Bauhaus.

So, in the decade after the Second World War ended, Gabo had become a world figure, seen on both sides of the Atlantic as a master, both for his sculpture and for his clear formulation of principles which lit the way for others already at work or seeking a new path.

This, however, was the time when the major trend in Western art was in precisely the opposite direction. It was the epoch of Abstract Expressionism, Action Painting, Tachisme, Art Informel (the trend had many labels) which had captured the interest of dealers, collectors and museum directors the world over. Constructive art continued vigorously, but quietly, both in Europe and in America, recognized by a small perceptive audience. The artists of this school were persevering, but also self-effacing. Gabo’s name, though famous, was not a household word. Sculpture takes longer to make than painting, and Gabo’s persistent industry had still produced only a relatively small oeuvre. Art becomes known by being seen, and there were few opportunities to see the work of Gabo. He was cited in books, but reproductions did not reveal his ideas of space. Also there was a tendency to confuse Gabo’s spatial structures with Cubism, the result of a superficial reading of a few works and ignorance of what Gabo both did and said. Cubism has to do with appearances more than with structure: in contrast, the 1916–17 works of Gabo retain the contours (in successive silhouettes) of the human form, but in their stereometric structure and open space they banish the idea of mass. The structure of these heads had grown logically out of Gabo’s engineering studies in Munich in 1912 and 1913, not out of the painting of Paris in 1910.

Gabo was from the first alert to the possibilities of unconventional materials for making visible his ideas of space. Transparent materials permitted construction without closing off the interior space. He used celluloid, then clear plastic, and later plexiglass on which directional lines were incised. About 1942, he substituted for these directional lines a series of strings stretched over a skeletal open rigid form, creating a virtual surface through which the interior space and structure could be clearly seen. These stretched strings were at first of ordinary twisted cord, then nylon filaments, and finally very slender spirally wound spring material. They became for the rest of Gabo’s life a vitally important component of his language. Thus the four steps advancing Gabo’s expressive means were: from stereometry (Head) with opaque planes, to transparent surfaces, to lines incised on plastic, to cords stretched through space. The last two steps took place between 1936 and 1942, during Gabo’s productive sojourn in England, and brought his style to maturity.

By implication, and by the frequency of his references to it, Gabo believed his greatest work to be the Bijenkorf project in Rotterdam. This Rotterdam Construction is by far his largest piece and the one where he encountered the most resistance—and, therefore, achieved his greatest triumph. This piece has been described in detail both by him and by other writers. What has not, perhaps, been said is that it confirmed in a direct way Gabo’s very early belief that his art must depend on Nature. When faced with the problem of a piece 80 feet high in a windy city, he said to himself, “It must be as strong as a tree”—the trunk a prolongation of the roots, then branches which do not grow in a straight line, but which twist as they emerge from the trunk. He described this to me: “I was making a tree, nothing else. Instinct told me to twist the branches.” Then he pointed to an old apple tree standing at the edge of his lawn in Connecticut: “That was the Rotterdam piece—the problem solved without mathematics.” Gabo always rejected indignantly the idea that he was making the sort of mathematical models that were invented in the 19th century to explain something which already existed; he was constructing “a new reality.” The inner structure, as in the Rotterdam work, is both Nature and this new reality.

Having postulated a kinetic art in 1920, Gabo had abandoned it after one or two essays because he felt that the technology was so clumsy that it eclipsed the form. He believed that the development of kinetic art would be in the film. However, at the end of his life, Gabo returned to it. His use of spirals, with a marked suggestion of movement, had previously culminated in 1929 with an important work called Torsion. The parts did not move in relation to one another, but in a later version (1960) the whole structure was redesigned to rotate as a fountain through the action and reaction of the jets of water emerging from it, in a kinetic equivalent of his stretched strings. This piece, in a still later and larger version, became the great fountain of St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, executed in 1976—Revolving Torsion, Gabo’s final work.

From the beginning Gabo had been deeply moved by the visual world around him, and in creating his own nonobjective world he never lost his contact with the sensual world: “The scientist uses an abstract language—as abstract as the language of music—to arrive at a human understanding of Nature, whereas the Artist’s language is directed toward a human feeling for Nature.”

Gabo’s abstract language required total preconception of the work. During an epoch dominated by gestural painting and an equivalent expressionist mode in sculpture, it was easy for “preconception” to be mistaken for lack of feeling and for thought to be considered alien to art.

The improvised, the impromptu, the momentary had no place in Gabo’s style. The idea was complete before the work itself was undertaken. But the human, the personal, the poetic were not jettisoned. The concept was contemplative; construction was nourished by feeling.

Gabo quoted Chekhov, all his life a doctor, who told how studying medicine had helped him, as a playwright, to understand depths of human nature. So Gabo said, in his studies of science, he came to understand, not the nature of man, as Chekhov did, but Nature itself.

George Rickey, the noted sculptor and scholar of Con structivism, was a longtime friend of Gabo.

This article is adapted from an unpublished monograph. Copyright, George Rickey.



1. Wölfflin had summoned Gabo for an interview before the final exam and had urged him to visit Italy. When Gabo replied, “No money,” Wölfflin told him to go “per pedes Apostolorum.”

2. Alexei Pevsner, A Biographical Sketch of my Brothers Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, Amsterdam, 1964, p. 24.

3. Movement had, to be sure, been involved in Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel of 1913, and was to reappear in his Rotoreliels of 1923. These, however, did not use time-movement as a new plastic element but rather as a means of poking fun at art itself, which was Duchamp’s principal and enduring motif. Calder’s mobiles were first exhibited at the Galerie Vignon in Paris in 1932.

4. When a new Bauhaus was established in Chicago by Moholy in 1937, Gabo had no direct contact with him there, but before long the principles of the Realistic Manifesto were to become part of a student’s consciousness, even if he had not read it. Gabo was invited by Moholy’s successor, Serge Chermayeff, to come to lecture to the students, where this writer heard him in 1948.