Naum Gabo

Construction in Space (Crystal)


Cellulose acetate
Object: 220 x 270 x 180 mm
Bequeathed by Miriam Gabo, the artist's widow 1995


During Naum Gabo’s stay in London between March 1936 and the start of the Second World War in September 1939, he produced a series of important works in plastic, including Construction in Space (Crystal), Construction on a Line 1935-7 (Tate T03054) and Construction in Space with Crystalline Centre 1938-40 (Tate T06977). Where Gabo’s earlier sculptures incorporated a diversity of materials and tones, these works were made of clear plastics, achieving a new degree of conceptual purity. Construction in Space (Crystal) was the first work made entirely from transparent planes, an elegant formal solution to the challenge which Gabo had set himself twenty years earlier, that of expressing the dynamic interior of objects.

While Gabo had long been fascinated by scientific models and theories, often adapting their general conclusions for his sculptural ends, this work was directly inspired by a mathematical model. The model, in the Institut Poincaré in Paris, was typical of those reproduced in geometry handbooks, and represented an ‘oscillating developable of a cubic ellipse’ (reproduced in Nash and Merkert (eds.), p.35, fig.39). It had already attracted the attention of the Surrealists, having been exhibited in May 1936 in the Exposition surréaliste d’objets at the Galerie Ratton in Paris, and photographed by Man Ray (1890-1976) for a feature in Cahiers d’Art in the same year. While Gabo may have seen the model himself in Paris, he produced the initial sketches for the construction by tracing from an illustration of the model in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Transposing the strung forms onto planes of transparent plastic stuck together with glue, he incised the sculpture with radiating lines to produce a sense of circular movement. Jan Gordon writing in The Observer in 1937 was ‘convinced that anybody with a true sense of three-dimensional form must be delighted by its subtle complexities and its ever-changing rhythms’ (quoted in Hammer and Lodder, p.237). This sense of dynamic forces and centrifugal energies relates to Gabo’s interest in modern physics, in particular to recent discoveries which pictured the physical universe as a continuous field of forces. In addition, his use of the word ‘crystal’ in the title of the work suggests a familiarity with the flourishing science of crystallography, which brought together the geometric and organic by examining the internal structure of molecules to reveal their mathematical regularity.

Despite these clear scientific references, Gabo disavowed any dependence on science in Construction in Space (Crystal). He was struck instead, as the Surrealists had been, by the model’s fanciful asymmetry and its unexpected form, saying later that his aim had been to ‘take this complicated formula and change its realisation to prove that what was basically a fantasy (the intuition of the mathematician) could be seen through the intuition of an artist’ (quoted in Nash and Merkert (eds.), p.223, note to 41). He made six works on the crystal theme. While their conception has been dated to around 1937, it is possible that Gabo conceived the work as early as 1934, since in 1938 he exhibited the second enlargement as Construction in Space, 1934-7. This version is inscribed ‘N.3’, although it is unclear whether this refers to the third enlargement after the model, or the third version produced in this size. Both this work and its model (Tate T02179) are made from cellulose acetate, also known as Rhodoid. Since Rhodoid was clearer, more malleable and less prone to discolouration than celluloid, it became a favoured material for Gabo’s plastic constructions. Experimenting with different plastics in the 1930s, he enjoyed privileged access to some of the latest materials through his friendship with Dr John Sisson, a chemist working in the Plastics Division of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). It was through Sisson that Gabo was introduced to perspex, a plastic only recently available and even more stable than Rhodoid, and which he used for a later version of Construction in Space (Crystal) produced in 1938-9.

This work was given by Gabo as an anniversary gift to his wife on 17 October 1947, by whom it was subsequently bequeathed to the Tate in 1995.

Further Reading:
Martin Hammer and Christina Lodder, Constructing Modernity: The Art and Career of Naum Gabo, New Haven and London 2000, pp.236-7, 250-1, 390-1, reproduced p.386
Steven A. Nash and Jörn Merkert (eds.), Naum Gabo: Sixty Years of Constructivism, exhibition catalogue, Munich 1985, pp.223-4 (note 41.5), reproduced p.115, fig.32

Jacky Klein
September 2002

Display caption

This work is related to a mathematical model in the Institut Poincaré, Paris, representing an 'oscillating developable of a cubic ellipse'. This model had been shown in May 1936 in the Exposition Surréaliste d'Objets at the Galerie Ratton. Like the Surrealists, Gabo was struck by the lyrical, sometimes fanciful nature of these geometrical models. He later said that he aimed in this work - one of a series on the theme - to 'take this complicated formula and change its realisation to prove that what was basically a fantasy (the intuition of the mathematician) could be seen through the intuition of an artist'.

Gallery label, August 2004

Tate Paper

Tate Sculpture Replica Project

Jackie Heuman and Lyndsey Morgan, Tate Sculpture Replica Project' Tate Papers no.8