Tate reconstructs Gabo's `lost' works

``The plumb line in our hand, eyes as precise as a ruler, in a spirit as taut as a compass ... we construct our work as the universe constructs its own, as the engineer constructs his bridges, as the mathematician his formula of the orbits....'' These high-sounding words from ``The Realistic Manifesto'' were written in 1920 by Russian artists Antoine Pevsner and Naum Gabo in Moscow. These two brothers - Gabo changed his name to avoid confusion - meant what they said and went on to practice their Constructivism for the next half century.

Gabo, four years the younger, outlived Pevsner by 15 years, passing on in 1977 after 60 years of consistent devotion to his ideals and inventive exploration of the possibilities of a strikingly 20th-century art form.

His works involve symmetrical, but complex structures. These are often penetrated by intricately radiating filaments. They delineate curves and form immaterial surfaces and deep spaces. They suggest perpetuity of movement poised in stillness, and inner perspectives that apparently never end.

This retrospective of Gabo's work, which has been touring America and Europe since September 1985, is now completing its journey at London's Tate Gallery. The Tate itself owns a remarkable collection of Gabo's work, particularly of his small maquettes or models - telling evidence of how he thought out his larger sculptures. The exhibition has thus been enlarged for its final showing.

Originality does seem to have been written into Gabo's conception of art. The 1920 manifesto rejected some aspects of even art's most recent past, Cubism and Italian Futurism. It was necessary to renounce these two movements because superficially at least Gabo's Constructivist works seemed to share some of their characteristics.

Take his ``Constructed Head,'' for example. This work appeared in various versions over a period stretching from 1916 to 1966; he told me in 1968 that this was the work he considered his greatest achievement.

At first sight, the ``head'' looks rather like Cubism. But a further study of it shows a very different kind of logic and clarity at work. His aim was to make a sculpture (in this case of a human figure) which instead of being bogged down in the tradition of sculptural mass, was spatially and internally liberated. Instead of a massive block of material whose surface is formed, carved, or delineated, Gabo's ``head'' is constructed of intersecting planes. Its form is penetrated in every direction by space. As the manifesto put it: ``We renounce volume as a pictorial and plastic form of space; one cannot measure space in volumes as one cannot measure liquid in yards; look at our space ... what is it if not one continuous depth?''

Such a notion would probably have little interest if it were not for the extraordinary sculptures (constructions) that it enabled Gabo to make. These multi-dimensional objects are the proof of the pudding.

Modernity was crucial to his aesthetics. The present meant much more to him than the past, or, for that matter, the future. He rejected the frenetics and love of motion espoused by the Italian Futurists. To him these artists were simplistic. Their attitudes were ``clad in the tatters of worn-out words like `patriotism,' `militarism,' `contempt for the female,' and all the rest of such provincial tags.''

As for their relish of speed as the driving energy of painting and sculpture, the manifesto countered: ``Look at a ray of sun ... the stillest of the still forces, it speeds more than 300 kilometers a second.''

One thing this retrospective has achieved is the resurrection of a number of Gabo's works that had apparently been lost. In fact they were packed away neatly and still in his possession, and they have been reassembled. The most recent example, shown at the Tate, is model for the stage set he and Pevsner designed for Diaghilev's ballet ``La Chatte'' in 1926-27.

Gabo early discovered the virtues of transparent materials for the kind of sculpture he wanted to make, and this was encouraged when he lived in England. Here the acrylic sheeting called ``perspex'' was made available to him before it was generally on the market.

But materials of themselves do not dictate quality and Gabo showed himself well aware of this in his continued use of more conventional media like carved stone and woodcut. That such traditional materials did not compromise the basic freshness of Gabo's imaginative vision speaks very highly of that vision: His investigations of inward space - studies that are so impressively timeless - are seen to form materials, rather than to be dependent on them.

Through April 20.

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