Naum Gabo
Biography of Naum Neemia Pevsner, Russian Constructivist Sculptor.

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Constructed Head No. 2 (1916)
Nasher Sculpture Centre, Dallas

EVOLUTION OF SCULPTURE
See: History of Sculpture.

Naum Gabo (1890-1977)

One of the great abstract sculptors of the twentieth century, the Russian artist Naum Neemia Pevsner - more commonly known as Naum Gabo - was a key figure in the Constructivism movement, a pioneer of Kinetic Art and an important exemplar of Russian sculpture.

Trained as an engineer, rather than an artist, Gabo was one of the first sculptors to make use of semi-transparent materials and to create abstract sculpture that incorporated space in a positive way. During his long life he was associated with numerous styles and schools including: Cubism, Futurism, Bauhaus, Abstraction-Creation, and the St Ives School. He also created countless sculptures, etchings and graphic designs, many of which can be seen at the Tate Gallery, London. Other examples of Naum Gabo's innovative sculpture can be seen in several of the best art museums in Europe and America.

MODERN PLASTIC ARTISTS
For a list of sculptors like Gabo,
see: Modern Artists.

BEST SCULPTURE
See: Greatest Sculptures Ever.

BEST ARTISTS
See: Greatest Sculptors.

MODERNIST SCULPTURE
Aristide Maillol (1861-1944)
Ernst Barlach (1870-1938)
Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957)
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916)
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
Henry Moore (1898-1986)
Alberto Giacometti (1901-66)
David Smith (1906-65)
Meret Oppenheim (1913-85)

Gabo's most famous works include Constructed Head No. 2 (1916, Nasher Sculpture Centre, Dallas), Head of a Woman (1917-20, Museum of Modern Art, New York), Translucent Variation on Spheric Theme (1937, Guggenheim New York), Constructie (1955-57, Bijenkorf Department Store, Rotterdam), Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) (1919-20, replica 1985, Tate) and Linear Construction No 2 (1970-1, Tate). Another of the great Russian artists who left his native country to practise his art, Naum Gabo is regarded as one of the great twentieth century sculptors.

Other famous Russian emigrant sculptors include: the Cubists Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964) and Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973) the Expressionist Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967), and the Assemblage artist Louise Nevelson (born Louise Berliawsky) (1899-1988).

Early Life

Gabo was born in Briansk, a provincial Russian town in 1890. He was christened Naum Pevsner, but changed his name later to Gabo to avoid confusion with his brother Antoine Pevsner, who also became a Constructivist sculptor. His father was a wealthy metal works owner, and insisted that his children were well schooled. Gabo was fluent in several languages, which he later felt contributed towards the mobility of his art career. In 1910 he moved to Munich to study at the University. At first he studied medicine, but soon switched to natural sciences. In 1912 he transferred to a prestigious engineering college, learning techniques that would help him construct sculptures later. At the college he met the artist Wassily Kandinsky who introduced him to abstract art. Gabo's career plans were beginning to change as he redirected his interests towards the visual arts.

 

 

Return to Russia and Foundations of Constructivism

In 1913 Gabo joined his brother Antoine in Paris - Antoine at this stage was already an established painter in the city. Gabo began to study the mechanics of sculpture, and his first pieces during this period won critical acclaim. He was awarded the Logan Medal of Arts. At the outbreak of World War I, Gabo was forced to flee Germany for Norway. Here, he began to experiment in multi-media including plywood and cardboard. He also worked with galvanised iron, a material more associated with industrial construction rather than the fine arts. Head No. 2 (1916, Tate London), a Cor-ten steel sculpture of a head, is a fine example from this period, as is his Constructed Torso (1917, Tate), made from cardboard. In 1917, Gabo and his brother returned to Russia where they exchanged ideas with Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935) and Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) at the Moscow College of Art. Both were the two most important figures in the avant-garde Russian art movement of the 1920s. In 1920, the brothers published their Realistic Manifesto. It provided the key text of Constructivism and laid out their theories on artistic expressions. The Manifesto focused on separating art from the conventions of line, colour, volume and mass. They also stated that art should accompany man everywhere, 'at the workbench, at the office, at work, at rest, and at leisure; work days and holidays, at home and on the road, so that the flame of life does not go out in man.' The ideas of the Manifesto were expressed in Gabo's Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) of 1920, a vibrating wire powered by an electric motor. A replica can be seen in the Tate Gallery, London.

The Manifesto also criticised Futurism and Cubism for not embracing abstract art enough. The brothers publicised their findings by organising an exhibition on Tverskoy Boulevard in Moscow.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate modernist abstract sculptors like Naum Gabo, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture. For earlier works, please see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.

Berlin and Bauhaus

In 1922, somewhat disappointed with the materialist direction taken by Constructivism in Russia, Gabo left for Berlin. Here, he met with many artists of the de Stijl movement (also known as Neo-Plasticism) including its leaders Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian. In 1926 he created a constructivist set design for Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. Only highly esteemed artists were ever invited to work with the Ballets Russes, and Gabo was in good company alongside Picasso, Chanel, Matisse, Derain, Miro, Dali and Rouault. By 1928 Gabo was teaching at the famous Bauhaus design school, and exhibited alongside other associates including Kurt Schwitters and Hugo Haring. In 1933, to avoid the rise of Nazism, Gabo and his brother who were Jewish moved to Paris.

France and UK

Gabo and his brother stayed in Paris until 1935, becoming members of the Abstraction-Creation Group. The founders of the movement included Jean Arp, Theo van Doesburg, Albert Gleizes, Auguste Herbin, Jean Helion, Frantisek Kupka, Georges Vantongerloo and Georges Valmier. Artists who joined the group shared a consensus on working with geometric abstract forms. Other members included El Lissitzky and Kurt Schwitters. In 1939 Gabo moved to St Ives in Cornwall, and settled there for seven years. He met the art critic Herbert Read and became friends with English abstract painter Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) and sculptress Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975). He worked on a small scale in St Ives, on both paintings and sculptures. While in England Gabo was introduced to the new variety of plastic called Perspex. He went on to employ this material in some of his best known works such as Translucent Variation on Spheric Theme (1937, Guggenheim New York) and Spiral Theme (1941, Tate). Gabo made over 20 free standing variations of the basic spherical theme, just differing in materials and size. More elaborate models of his plastic art include Spheric Construction: Fountain (1938), Bas-relief on a Circular Surface, Semi-spheric (1938) and Construction in Space, with Net (1952) - all in private collections. During the war years in England, Nabo also introduced nylon filaments into his works, for example Linear Construction in Space No.1 (1942, Tate). Materials became in short supply as the war progressed, but he was still able to carve and paint. Although Gabo left England in 1946, the baton of Constructivism was taken up by Victor Pasmore (and others) in the form of geometrical paintings.

1950s Onwards

In 1946 Gabo moved to the States and received a series of large scale commissions. The first of this was for the Esso building the Rockefeller Center, New York (this remained unexecuted - Model for the Esso Project, 1949 can be seen at the Tate) and his Construction Suspended in Space for the Baltimore Museum of Art (1951). Many of Gabo's sculptures first appeared as tiny models. They were often projects for monumental public schemes, rarely achieved, in which architecture and sculpture came together. His proposal, for example, that Model for an Airport (1932, Tate) could be used to advertise Imperial Airways, as either a desk display or an outdoor sculpture, was never realised. Model for Torsion (1928-36, Tate), however, was eventually translated into a large fountain outside St Thomas Hospital in London. One of the monumental pieces Gabo executed at this period in his life is his 81-foot construction that stands in front of the Bijenkorf Department Store in Rotterdam (1955-57). This work, called Constructie, is composed largely of a bronze-coated steel mesh that adheres to a skeletal frame resembling an upright pea pod. In the early 1950s Gabo took up wood engraving, which he continued until the mid 1970s as a way of exploring the same concepts as his sculpture.

Throughout his career Nabo sought to integrate sculpture, architecture, design, art and science. In such a way he felt that his 'constructive idea' could serve as a philosophy not only for art but for life in general. He taught his philosophy at the Harvard University School of Architecture between 1953 and 1954. Gabo died in 1977, in Connecticut. He was 87.

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