Etched by time and hands

Smoothed and burnished by the patient, relentless battering of the waves, a pebble or stone discovered on a beach reveals a humble and certain individuality. Split countless years ago from some massive rock, shifted and turned innumerable times by ebbing and flowing water, it appears to have resisted many of the destructive aspects of time. Having reached the shore, where it has tumbled and rolled to a standstill, the stone will lie under the sun and winds until irresistible tides drag it once more into the sea.

There is always the chance, however, that someone will come upon the stone, be struck by its austere beauty and singularity, and remove it from its natural context. The illustration shows one such stone, found in a serendipitous manner by Naum Gabo, which has been transformed, by the artist's thought and action, into a piece of sculpture. It is one of a group of six miniature carvings, all made from stones gathered on a beach, which forms part of Gabo's extensive donation to the Tate Gallery in London.

Like the other miniature carvings, this stone was intended more as a study than as a fully realized work, and Gabo hoped to reproduce it on a larger scale. As such, the stone falls on the boundary between an interesting objet trouve and a work of art. Although rich in ordinary associations, the pebble has lost something of its earlier identity, having been subtly altered and reconceived by the sculptor; it has become less of a seaside stone, and more of a tentative step in the process of re-creation.

Naum Gabo was one of the first artists to respond, in sculptural form, to some of the ideas of Einstein and other physicists whose concepts of relativity had become known as the ''space-time continuum.'' Space and time were the main concerns of Gabo's sculptural explorations. He worked mainly in plastics, Perspex, and metal, materials he considered particularly suited to the visual expression of new forms of thinking. But occasionally, when the artist's interest in space and motion was subverted by a preoccupation with the notion of time, he used stone for his sculpture.

Although its physical peculiarities are suggestive both of the slow ravages of time and of a certain immunity to them, stone was not a medium with which Gabo felt completely at ease, for its objectivity made it difficult to transform - on his terms - with any visual immediacy. In contrast, his use of transparent, translucent, and reflecting materials facilitated the creation of spacial complexity and depth; they also reduced the mundane associations of his structures.

According to Gabo, art is ''the specific and exclusive faculty of man's mind to conceive and represent the world without him and within him in forms and by means of artfully constructed images.'' He saw these forms as relating only to themselves, with no content, purpose, or function apart from this. He put great stress on the purely visual characteristics of his sculpture, and although he was concerned with theories of time and space, Gabo's art was not ''conceptual.''

The artist was doubtless aware of the varied impressions of time that can be brought to mind by a few moments of reflection on the nature of this stone, but he may well have thought that images of this kind are not sufficiently visual in origin to fulfill his own definition of art. This, I suspect, may be one of the reasons that Gabo did not attempt to reconstruct this piece of sculpture on a larger scale. The little stone, which is almost as unremarkable in a museum context as it would have been when it was found on the seashore, is left with us more as an indication of the way the artist worked out his art and aesthetics than as a substantial creation. Nevertheless, like many quiet and understated observations, it is charged with abundant implications.

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