Naum Gabo

Naum Gabo (1890–1977) is one of those artists who had long been almost overlooked. His famous “heads,” which are often torsos plus a head, are reproduced in all the histories of Cubism and Constructivism, and the significance of his experiments with the modem materials of plastic, nylon filament, wire, and stainless steel is generally acknowledged. Yet the work of this Russian-born artist, whose poststudent career spanned from the revolutionary days of 1915 to the mid ’70s, has never really been judged as a whole.

In these days of revisionism, no stone is being left unturned, and so Gabo, too, has been brought to light in a major traveling retrospective. The outcome, however, is somewhat uneven. Gabo’s early constructions of heads and torsos are still remarkable, and all the more so collectively The first section of the show, which brings together versions of three different heads, is therefore the strongest. Constructed Head No. 1 is a somewhat simplified plywood version of the head and shoulders of a figure originating in 1915 (dismantled at an unknown date, it was reassembled in 1985). Then there are three of the seven known versions of Constructed Head No. 2, which shows a head tilted downward and hands folded in front of a truncated torso. There is also a Constructed Head No. 3 from 1964; this version, a phosphor-bronze also known as Head in a Corner Niche, is not really a head but an angular face wedged like a religious icon into a corner construction. All of these complicated assemblages of curved and flat planes have a strong emotional impact. Despite their analytic basis, the slant of the head, the mix of open and closed forms, and the change of color according to material all contribute to make the works appear alternately sad, pensive, or simply withdrawn. At this point Gabo was using his experimental media to his greatest advantage, and without compromising content.

Further examples of Gabo’s early experiments are interesting but less striking than the heads. His Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) of 1919–20, in the Tate Gallery London, is a vertical metal rod that is rotated by an electric motor, creating an oscillating linear sculpture. Originally intended as a demonstration of a kinetic principle and not as a work of art, the piece really remains just that, but with considerable historic interest as well. Gabo’s “Columns” from the early ’20s, on the other hand, are much more interesting from the point of view of color and form. Even the smallest of these, (the scale models for monumental works) combine celluloid, Perspex, and other plastics in a play of color and transparency, reflecting a visionary sense of the glass-box architecture that would follow decades later.

I was most disappointed, however, by the numerous constructions of wire strung across a seemingly endless array of curvilinear forms. I couldn’t help remembering childhood arts-and-crafts classes, when we were asked to pull string through countless holes to make “modem art?” Maybe not enough time has passed to make this work look good, or maybe there is just too much of it, but Gabo’s variations do seem very restrained by their technical virtuosity. The monotony of the late works is only interrupted by a small selection of carved stone sculptures, all seemingly anthropomorphic and retaining some of the emotional impact of his earliest constructions. The exhibition makes clear that Gabo was both a technical innovator and a master of form, but I think he lost his spiritual impact when he left the figure behind.

Susan Freudenheim