In The Realistic Manifesto, written in Moscow in 1920, Naum Gabo provided a vivid account of the spirit in which he produced his sculptures:
With a plumb line in hand, with eyes as precise as a ruler, with a spirit as taut as a compass, we build them in the same way as the universe builds its own creations, as the engineer his bridges, as the mathematician his formulae of the orbits.
The idea of constructing or building three-dimensional sculptures from planar elements was at the core of Gabo’s art. In common with other artists in the 1910’s, notably Pablo Picasso and Vladmir Tatlin, he embarked upon this new method of working as a radical alternative to the sculptor’s traditional technique of modelling and carving. For Gabo the idea of construction represented an artistic equivalent to the innovations of contemporary science and technology. It also permitted the introduction into sculpture of modern, industrially materials such as sheet metal, glass and the new plastics. A work such as Column epitomises the highly mechanistic and architectonic character of Gabo’s early constructions, produced in Moscow and Berlin. For the rest of his long career, spent mainly in England and the United States (where he died in 1977), Gabo remained faithful, in the mainstream of his work, to the ‘constructive method’ which he had initially conceived during the first world war.
What, then, possessed Gabo to produce the decidedly, solid carved sculptures on display in this exhibition, which were made using traditional tools and natural materials? A general answer might be that all artists of substance, even one as single minded as Gabo, relish setting themselves new challenges and extending their resources. In that sense, the carvings are comparable to the paintings which he produced intermittently throughout his career, or to the wood-engravings which he began to make in 1950.
More specific reasons are suggested by the chronology of Gabo’s involvement in carving. The works in this exhibition date from the 1930’s onwards. Stone with a collar, his first work to incorporate a carved stone, precisely registers the transition between the planar constructions and forms which Gabo subsequently carved from a single block. While the attached collar is made from opaque plastic and the strip from painted metal, the two solid elements are carved in contrasting Portland Stone and black slate. In exhibition catalogues Gabo always dated Stone with a collar to 1933, when he had just left Nazi Germany and was beginning his short, unhappy stay in Paris. In fact he had only made a very rough, small scale model before his arrival in Britain in March 1936. It was quite common for Gabo to date works according to when he had arrived at a definitive conception and produced a model; the moment at which the essential idea was resolved was more important than the point at which he happened to execute a version on a particular scale and in materials appropriate to that scale. It now seems certain that Stone with a collar was first turned into a finished sculpture during the second half of 1936, in response to a commission by the English painter Winifred Nicholson. Gabo subsequently made the large variant exhibited here which, as early photographs show, initially included a black strip arching over the stone and a secondary plastic collar.