New York

Naum Gabo

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

In his “Realistic Manifesto” of 1920 (co-signed by his brother Antoine Pevsner), Naum Gabo declared, “We do not measure our works with the yardstick of beauty, we do not weigh them with pounds of tenderness and sentiments.” But the works on view in this recent showmarvelous late-Cubist heads and space constructions that entangle the viewer in their intricacyare in fact beautiful and emotionally evocative. One doesn’t usually associate the attributes haunting, melodramatic, and intimate with the Russian constructivist’s work, but that’s exactly what these sculptures are.

In his artistic trajectory from the heads to the space constructions, Gabo seems to have found his emotional and aesthetic center. Most of the latter works contain an inner sanctum from which one is shut out by a surrounding rhythmic web, as if the sculpture had enshrined the void at its core. Isn’t that absence at the center of these works a sacred mystery? Is it too much to suggest that Construction in Space with Balance on Two Points, ca. 1924–25, Bronze Spheric Theme (Variation), 1964–66, Vertical Construction No. 2, 1969–70, and Torsion, Variation, ca. 1974–75, are grand, three-dimensional icons—that Gabo could not escape his cultural heritage, however much he transformed it? Indeed, when the center is spanned, as in Marble Carving, 1938/1966–67, and Bronze Cast of Rose Marble Carving, ca. 1966, the work becomes fraught with spiritual meaning.

Though often seen as such, Gabo’s constructions are not simply triumphs of technology (a very personal technology, by the way; for all the appearance of machine-made precision, the artist threaded his wire by hand) but are also intensely expressive. In fact, the more one looks at the works, the more one becomes aware of the tension holding them together: the excruciating tautness of the wires, rhythmically repeated to hypnotic effect. The climax is the overall shape, with its oddly organic, convulsive twists, which create the impression that the work is metamorphosing—mutating?—into some unfathomable creature, as in Construction in Space: Arch No. 2, ca. 1958–63, and Construction in Space: Suspended, 1965. This allusion to such a creature is not unfounded, for Gabo acknowledged a “connection with nature,” especially through his materials, which he thought established the “emotional foundation” of his sculpture. But clearly there is also emotion in the hard-driving, repetitive, sinewy lines.

Gabo, of course, was obsessed with rhythm and speed, and there is a consistent and insistent movement to the work. For him, “a ray of sun . . . the stillest of the still forces, [which] speeds more than 300,000 kilometres in a second,” was the ideal linear movement. His kinetic constructions, as he called them, are in effect linear constructions of light—virile carvings in cosmic space, full of its radiant emptiness. They may lack mass (a sculptural quality Gabo renounced), but they are filled with light. Whereas the heads are finite forms, the space constructions are fragments of the infinite. The transition is from tragic introversion to the spiritual illumination that dispels it: The heads look inward, but the constructions look outward to the luminous structured cosmos beyond the dark self.

It is striking that many of these sculptures were made during the heyday of Minimalism, when geometric abstraction was dumbed down into simplistic gestalts in turn mystified by theory into supposedly profound meaning. The spiritual intelligence and intricate aesthetics of Gabo’s geometric constructions have no need of theory to attain their depth and profundity.

Donald Kuspit