The Impermanence of Constructivist Sculpture: Naum Gabo
On the 23rd of August 1977, Russian Constructivist sculptor, and pioneer of Kinetic Art, Naum Gabo died in Waterbury, Connecticut. Whilst his real name was Naum Neemia Pevsner, he ended up changing it to avoid confusion with his brother and fellow Constructivist artist Antoine Pevsner. While visiting Pevsner in Paris in 1913–14, Gabo met the artist Alexander Archipenko and others involved with the avant-garde. During World War I he lived with Pevsner in Oslo, Norway. There, Gabo produced his first Cubist-influenced figurative sculptures, exemplified by Constructed Head No. 2 (1916), which he executed in celluloid and metal. The brothers also began to experiment along the Constructivist lines laid down by their fellow Russian Vladimir Tatlin. Constructivist sculpture as practiced by Tatlin had definite political implications, but Gabo was more interested in its use of modern technology and industrial materials.
In August 1920, Gabo and his brother published The Realistic Manifesto in which they focused largely on divorcing art from such conventions as use of line, colour, volume and mass. Instead, they believed that art should express the nature of space and time: “Space and time are the only forms on which life is built and hence art must be constructed. …We renounce in sculpture, the mass as a sculptural element. It is known to every engineer that the static forces of a solid body and its material strength do not depend on the quantity of the mass… example a rail, a T-beam, etc. But you sculptors of all shades and directions, you still adhere to the age-old prejudice that you cannot free the volume of mass. Here… we take four planes and we construct with them the same volume as of four tons of mass. Thus we bring back to sculpture the line as a direction and in it we affirm depth as the one form of space.” (The Realistic Manifesto, [in:] Charles Harrison, Paul Wood, Art in Theory, 1900-2000. An Anthology of Changing Ideas)
To define the volumes of mass and space more clearly in his sculpture, Gabo used some of the new synthetic plastic materials, such as celluloid, nylon, and Lucite in order to create constructions whose space seem to flow through, as well as around, the transparent materials. In works such as Column (1923), the sculptor opened up the column’s circular mass so that the viewer can experience the volume of space it occupies. Two transparent planes extend through its diameter, crossing at right angles at the centre of the implied cylindrical column shape. The opaque coloured planes at the base and the inclined open ring set up counter-rhythms to the crossed upright planes. They establish the sense of dynamic kinetic movement Gabo always sought to express as an essential part of reality.
“The Constructivists’ rejection of traditional sculptural media was a rejection of historical values: in turning to the utilitarian materials and constructional methods of developing technology, the artists expressed an innovative ideology associated with industrialised urban life and a concept of progress. One way they challenged aesthetic values was to conceive their works in processed materials, which not only lacked appealing textures but, they seemed to believe, would not become weathered and patinated like the sculptures of the past.” (Elizabeth Rankin, A Betrayal of Material: Problems of Conservation in the Constructivist Sculpture of Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner; Leonardo, Vl. 21, No. 3, 1988).
As innovative and groundbreaking as they seemed at first, the sculptures of Naum Gabo and his brother Antoine Pevsner turned out to be problematic it terms of their preservation. Their “[w]orks were intended to embody the utopian paradox of being eternally modern. But the materials of the new technology have often betrayed their makers. Instead of resisting the passage of time, many Constructivist works are decayed or destroyed and survive unblemished only in photographs. …Even when innovative materials were available and were deployed skilfully, they have not always stood the test of time. This particularly applies to plastic as a sculptural medium. …In Gabo’s Rhodoid Construction on a Line in Space (1937, Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford), for example, the subtle curving of the two vertical planes has become distorted by warping. His Construction in Space: Monument for as Airport (1932, Rhode Island Museum of Art, Providence) once presented an image of space-shearing, streamlined geometric forms; now the planes are sadly buckled and out of balance so that the sculpture has to be propped up, presenting the image of a battered flying machine rather than a concept of flight. …The version of Gabo’s Construction in Space: Two Cones (1927) that is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art is now totally fragmented, little more than a collection of brownish shards.” (Rankin)
In some of these cases, and with permission of Gabo himself when he was still alive, conservationists sought rescue in making replicas of the original, partially-decomposed sculptures. The procedure, however, has been questioned as it challenges the principle of originality of these works of art, “but the aesthetic of Constructivism was not dependent on the individual mark of the artist, and such works lend themselves to copying more successfully that others might. Gabo himself did not hesitate to make replicas of his works or to produce versions in new materials or on a new scale. …The Constructivists rejected traditional sculpture and found inspiration in innovative materials and industrial techniques to create images of modernity. It seems ironic that they should have fallen victim to the technology they adulated.” (Rankin)