Sculptures Carved Of Space

YOU could say that Naum Gabo's sculpture ``Bronze Spheric Theme'' is made out of space, rather than solid matter.

``The Spheric Theme is the result of many years' research for a constructive method of transferring my perception of space in terms of visual experience of it,'' Gabo was once quoted as saying.

Although the sculpture shown here, constructed out of phosphor bronze and attached to a wooden base, was made in about 1960, it is, in the development of Gabo's art, a further extension of an absolutely central concept going back to the mid-1920s.

This artist was careful to explain what he meant when he talked about ``space'' in his work. It has nothing to do with ``travelling to the moon,'' he said in a series of lectures he gave in Washington, D.C. in 1959. ``The phenomenon of space-experience about which I am speaking is something so down-to-earth,'' he continued, ``such an inseparable part of all our everyday experiences, that for a very long time we all, artists included, have taken it for granted as self-evident.''

The kind of space he was talking about (and which he made a crucial concern of art in his ``Realist Manifesto'' of 1920, a statement that laid the foundations of the new approach to art he called Constructivism) was not space as conceived by scientists or mathematicians. Nor was it ``some sort of transcendental and abstract idea about space.'' It was a vitally new awareness of how the artist could describe an aspect of visual experience, of the way in which space, rather than solid mass, could be seen as the structure out of which an image could be made. Gabo characterized this spatial approach to making works of art not as something abstract or fanciful but as a ``concrete element of our vision, playing an active role in the structure of an image in a painting or sculpture.''

The problem was that painters and particularly sculptors in the past had dealt in solid masses such as blocks of marble and palpable subjects such as the human figure. These traditional sculptors thought in terms of what Gabo described as ``closed volumes and compact materials alone'' - ``so space was of no concern to the sculptor, since the solid had a space in which it stood, and that was the whole function of space in the plastic arts up to very recent times.''

SOME of Gabo's early training and experience was in the fields of science and engineering, but he saw a need to challenge the idea that scientists tended to foster - that their views of the world, however alterable they might truthfully be, were monopolistic. Gabo maintained that scientists, no less than artists, were only presenting a persuasive vision of the world, and that it was not necessarily any truer - or more comprehensive - than the artist's view.

From its earliest forms, Gabo's sculpture had conceived ``space'' as crucial. He had constructed ``Heads,'' for example, that might be said to have been made of hollows rather than solids. Sean Rainbird, curator of the modern collection of the Tate Gallery, London, which is currently staging a display of Gabo's work, writes that ``Gabo's earlier constructed heads were based around the stereometric system, in which planes are bisected to indicate a volume rather than enveloping or surrounding the volume. But the idea for `Spheric Theme' was Gabo's own innovation.''

Stereometry was traditionally the science or art of measuring solids. It is possible to measure or describe a solid by intersecting its interior space with planes. For example, two intersecting planes can describe the inner space of a cube, the outer walls of which are gone. By employing such intersecting or angled planes in his sculptures of human heads, Gabo had entered what would conventionally have been a solid to discover its inner measurements or conceivable structure. But he was still left, visually speaking, with a sculptural form-in-space.

Gabo had gone further than the Cubist attempt to represent the outside of objects from multiple viewpoints, in which (as he put it) ``all that was before holy and intangible for an artistic mind, namely, the formal unity of the external world, was suddenly laid down on [the Cubists'] canvases, torn in pieces and dissected as if it were a mere anatomical specimen.... A Cubistic painting seems like a heap of shards from a vessel exploded from within.''

He always saw Cubism as a destructive (rather than constructive) revolution in visual art, perhaps a necessary incentive for artists to start again from the beginning, but actually an impasse out of which many artists only managed to escape by regression to some sort of old classicism. Gabo's Constructivism presented a different course, he believed, and the sculptural images he conceived by no means went back to Ingres or Raphael. What they presented was a kind of opening up of a potentially different approach of art and artists to the world, a vision of it as spatial rather than impenetrably solid, and as continuous rather than a succession of time frames.

But to many artists, the works Gabo produced looked like mathematical constructs or scientific diagrams and models, rather than ``art.'' And his work is still accorded remarkably scant attention by sculptors of a more traditional bent. On the other hand, he insisted frequently that he was an artist, that he was making art, and that his work clearly belonged in art galleries and museums. (The Tate Gallery has a notable collection). The expression of emotions and feelings was his primary motive, and the effect of his work on receptive viewers is often a kind of deeply satisfying elation.

AS his reputation slowly grew over a long career, he was seen as a pioneer. The kinetic sculptor George Rickey dedicated his 1967 book ``Constructivism, Origins and Evolution'' to Gabo and gave him prime place in what he saw then as a still-growing diversity and inventiveness of ``non-objective tendencies'' in art. To Rickey, the ideas set out by Gabo in his 1920 manifesto were still apt half a century later.

And with Gabo's conviction that time needed to be seen in art as ``the faculty of experiencing the continuity of the present'' Rickey, in 1967, could still not call Gabo a pioneer of Constructivism, since Gabo had another 10 years of work ahead of him (he died in 1977). In his remaining years, Gabo, with the help of assistants, made larger-scale versions of some of his earlier concepts, including ``spheric theme.'' He even realized a fountain that had been one of his earliest ideas connected with the spheric-theme concept.

In fact, from the mid-1930s on, the image of space - both elusive and captured - that ``spheric theme'' offered was at the back of most of Gabo's sculptural thinking, the source of an inventive flow of spatial sculpture in a great variety of materials, opaque or transparent, with curving, continuous surfaces or interpenetrating filaments. ``Spheric Theme'' was a turning point in his work.

This is how Gabo himself described its genesis, looking back in 1957 to the years in the `30s when he first developed the idea from drawings to actual three-dimensional works:

``The angular structure of the stereometric cube which I applied in my previous constructions since 1915, I found in elementary stereometry. It very soon proved insufficient to many an image which was growing in me where the vision of space as a sculptural element had to play a greater role.... I felt that the visual character of space is not angular: that to transfer the perception of space into sculptural terms, it has to be spheric.... I found no answer in graphic terms in science which would satisfy my vision of space. I consider that in this work of mine there is a satisfactory solution to that problem. Instead of indicating space by an angular intersection of planes, I enclose the space in one curved continuous surface....''

In effect, this ``curved continuous surface'' describes the inner space of a sphere. He added, just to bring his viewers down to earth, that ``There are some who consider my `Spheric Theme' as an image of infinity. To my mind the image of infinity could not be an image which turns back on itself. I feel in this Spheric Theme continuity rather than infinity.''

Gabo's sculpture, it is true, does not indulge in fanciful dematerialization. His works, however transparent they sometimes become, or reflective of surrounding light, and however descriptive they are of visual rather than tactile experience, exist nevertheless in the world of objects. It is as if they say: No we are not imagination, we are perception. We are sculpture even though we are no longer heavy mass or solid opacity. We are what an artist sees, not what he dreamed. * ``Naum Gabo: The Creative Process'' will be on display at the Tate Gallery in London until June 19.

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