Naum Gabo

Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave)

1919–20, replica 1985

Metal, wood and electric motor
Object: 616 x 241 x 190 mm
Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1966


Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) is a mechanical sculpture consisting of a plain steel rod emerging from a small black wooden base, now encased for protection in a clear acrylic box. When activated by the press of a button, the machine springs to life: through the rapid oscillations caused by a hidden electric motor in the base, it forms the illusion of a sinuously twisting, three-dimensional shape. The image generated through these movements, with its quivering transparency, is that of a ‘standing wave’: a term taken from the field of physics, familiar to Gabo through his studies in natural science and engineering.

Gabo and his brother, fellow artist Antoine Pevsner, had been inspired by the 1917 Russian revolution to move back from Europe to their native Russia. In Moscow Gabo was exposed to the fervid political and aesthetic debates of the post-revolutionary period and became closely acquainted with avant-garde artists such as Vladimir Tatlin and Kasimir Malevich. According to the artist, Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) was initially produced for students in 1919–20 as a demonstration of the constructivist ideas expressed in his Realistic Manifesto (Gabo 1969, p.89). Written by Gabo and published jointly with Pevsner in August 1920, the manifesto proclaimed the need for art to connect with the political and industrial transformations of the era by establishing a more active relationship to space and time (reprinted in Gabo: The Constructive Idea: Sculpture, Drawings, Paintings, Monoprints, exhibition catalogue, South Bank Centre, London 1987, pp.52−4). The title alludes to the ‘kinetic rhythms’ advocated in the manifesto and the subtitle, Standing Wave, was introduced by the artist in around 1966.

It took Gabo almost three-quarters of a year to realise his concept. In the chaos of civil war, finding it difficult to source the basic machine parts that he needed, he conducted extensive experiments using salvaged materials in a mechanical workshop in the Polytechnicum Museum. The artist wrote in 1969: ‘It was done in a primitive way, but the only way I could have done it at that time, when conditions were such that looking for elaborate mechanisms was to search for a golden plate from the moon!’ (Gabo 1969, p.89).

Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) was among Gabo’s earliest abstract works, a dramatic departure from the intersecting planes of the figurative works that he had been creating since 1915. As perhaps the first motorised sculpture (Natalia Sidlina, Naum Gabo, London 2012, p.52), it was a distinctive response to the non-objective forms and utopian ambitions of his avant-garde Russian contemporaries. Although Gabo often emphasised the work’s genesis as a demonstration model, it was exhibited as a work of art, appearing in Moscow in 1920 as well as in the landmark First Russian Art Exhibition (Erste russische Kunstausstellung) in Berlin in 1922. Frustrated by the technical difficulties of electrical constructions, Gabo did not pursue kinetic sculpture in the early 1920s, although he did explore the potential of newly developed plastics and continued to work with abstraction for the rest of his life.

Kinetic art experienced a remarkable international revival in the 1960s, and Gabo was among those early twentieth-century artists hailed as a pioneer by a generation exploring the aesthetic possibilities of machinery. Gabo donated Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) to Tate following his successful Tate Gallery retrospective in 1966, where one critic described it as ‘the exquisite little kinetic rod of 1920, quivering with hummingbird delicacy (a Brancusi-like essence of kineticism which makes all subsequent efforts look mutton-fisted)’ (Nigel Gosling, ‘Structures in Space’, Observer, 20 March 1966, p.25). Because of its fragility many of the work’s components had, by then, been gradually replaced and its overall effect subtly altered. Archival records from the late 1960s and early 1970s show that in subsequent repairs and replicas, the artist was concerned not only to achieve a precise formal effect but also to maintain the ‘primitive’ mechanism of the 1920 motor, even though it is hidden from view. He also suggested adding a switch button to protect the delicate structure from wear, adding a new element of interactivity.

Further reading
Naum Gabo, ‘The Kinetic Construction of 1920’, Studio International, September 1969, vol.178, no.914, p.89.
Steven A. Nash and Jörn Merkert (eds.), Gabo: Sixty Years of Constructivism, exhibition catalogue, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas 1985, pp.20−1, 205–6.
Martin Hammer and Christina Lodder, Constructing Modernity: The Art and Career of Naum Gabo, New Haven and London 2000, pp.69−72.

Hilary Floe
March 2016

Display caption

In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, when this work was made, materials were hard to come by. ‘It was the height of civil war, hunger and disorder in Russia. To find any part of machinery was next to impossible’, said Gabo. Originally made to demonstrate the principles of kinetics to his students, it reflects the artist’s belief in a sculpture in which space and time were active components. A strip of metal is made to oscillate so that a standing wave is set up. This movement in real time creates the illusion of volumetric space.

Gallery label, November 2015

Catalogue entry

Naum Gabo 1890-1977

T00827 Kinetic Sculpture (Standing Wave) 1919-20

Not inscribed
Metal rod with electric motor, 24 1/4 x 9 1/2 x 7 1/2 (61.5 x 24.1 x 19)
Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1966
Exh: Open-air exhibition in the Tverskoi Boulevard, Moscow, August 1920 (no catalogue); Erste russische Kunstausstellung, Galerie van Diemen, Berlin, January 1922 (550) as 'Kinetische Konstruktion (Zeit als neues Element der plastischen Künste)'; Gabo: konstruktive Plastik, Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover, November 1930 (9) as 'Kinetische Plastik' 1919-20; Alexander Calder: Mobiles - Naum Gabo: Kinetic Constructions and Constructions in Space, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, October-November 1953 (Gabo 2, repr.); Bewogen Beweging, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, March-April 1961 (84, repr.) as 'Virtueel Volume' 1920; Rörelse i Konsten, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, May-September 1961 (87, repr.); Naum Gabo, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, April-June 1965 (p3); Kunsthalle, Mannheim, June-August 1965 (3, repr.); Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum, Duisburg, August-October 1965 (3, repr.); Kunsthaus, Zurich, October-December 1965 (3, repr.); Den inre och den yttre Rymden, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, January-February 1966 (57, repr.); Naum Gabo, Tate Gallery, March-April 1966 (4, repr.); Naum Gabo: The Constructive Process, Tate Gallery, November 1976-January 1977 (13)
Lit: Herbert Read, Ruth Olsen and Abraham Chanin, Naum Gabo - Antoine Pevsner (New York 1948), p.18; Naum Gabo, 'Naum Gabo's "Kinetic Sculpture" Construction and Reconstruction' in Techne, 1, No.1, 14 April 1969, p.5 repr.; Naum Gabo, 'The "Kinetic Construction of 1920" ' in Studio International, CLXXVIII, 1969, p.89 repr.
Repr: Herbert Read and Leslie Martin, Gabo: Constructions, Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, Engravings (London 1957), pl.15; Michael Compton, Optical and Kinetic Art (London 1974), pl.11

This work was made in Moscow in the winter of 1919-20 and was first exhibited in the open-air exhibition in the Tverskoi Boulevard there in August 1920 of works by Gabo, Pevsner and several younger artists arranged to coincide with the publication of the Realistic Manifesto. The Manifesto had been written by Gabo and was signed jointly by him and his brother Noton (Antoine) Pevsner. After renouncing the traditional preoccupation with volume and mass, and asserting the importance of space and time for sculpture, they declared:

'We renounce the thousand-year-old delusion in art that held the static rhythms as the only elements of the plastic and pictorial arts.

'We affirm in these arts a new element the kinetic rhythms as the basic forms of our perception of real time'.

Gabo has given the following account of how this work was made, in an article published in Techne and Studio International and quoted here with his permission:

'It was done in a primitive way, but the only way I could have done it at that time, when conditions were such that looking for elaborate mechanisms was to search for a golden plate from the moon!

'This is how I did it. The standing waves had attracted my attention since my student days, in particular the fact that when you look at a standing wave, the image becomes three-dimensional. In order to show what I meant by calling for the introduction of kinetic rhythms into a constructed sculpture, I chose that standing wave as a good illustration of the idea - so I decided to construct a standing wave which would be vibrating on one fixed point and rigid enough to be indeed a "standing wave".

'One must keep in mind that the year was the winter of 1919-1920. It was the height of civil war, hunger, and disorder in Russia. To find any part of machinery or to do any kind of work in a recently nationalized factory in Moscow - most of which were idle and impenetrable - was next to impossible. What I was looking for was the basic mechanism of an electric bell, but of a bell stronger than the usual household one - strong enough to produce enough vibration in a rigid rod.

'I knew that there was a mechanical workshop in the Polytechnicum Museum where apparatus was being made for the Scientists in Physics, and I visited that workshop and found that some of the workmen were still there and some work was still going on.

'I asked the director and was given permission to do my experiments in that workshop, which was a godsend. The mechanics there knew all the places in Moscow where old, unused machinery was lying about. In one of them we found an old factory bell which was not in use because it had been replaced by a whistle. The only useful piece of that bell, for me, was a powerful electromagnet. To make the magnet work was a simple thing - we still had electricity.

'But the main task was to create with this a regular rhythmic wave. It was not difficult to arrange a horizontal iron bar which would vibrate when the electricity was on, but to join that bar with a mechanism which would let a vertical steel rod vibrate demanded a great deal of effort and inventiveness.

'After a lot of experimenting, what I did was to arrange the bar in such a way that at the base of it were two separate springs which would touch the spring on which the iron bar was fixed. I arranged the springs in such a way that together they would produce a rhythmic standing wave, co-ordinating each other's vibration.

'This was not at all simple as it sounds. I had to change a great many springs. I had to choose the length, strength, and elasticity of each one; I had to attach a kind of a brake to the main spring on which the bar was which would regulate the primary movement of the bar. I also had to balance out the steel rod so that the wave would be staying in the same dimensions and not jump out and divide itself into two waves.

'I solved the problem by fastening to the rod two balancing gadgets, one at the bottom of the rod and one at the top. At the bottom I made a ring, fixed into a particular point at the base of the rod, which produced the beginning of the wave. At the top of the rod, two small triangular pieces of plastic regulated the height of the wave. Later on, by choosing a stronger steel rod, this last arrangement proved to be unnecessary.

'This is how the thing was made. It took me much more time to make it than to write this explanation - in fact, it took me almost three quarters of a year.

'When I showed it to the students, I made it emphatically clear that this was done by me in order to show them what I mean by "kinetic rhythms". This piece is only a basic example of one single movement - nothing more'.

Gabo confirmed in December 1969 that the electromagnet, the circular adjustable balance, the support and the black-painted wooden box which covers the motor are all the original ones used in 1920. The steel rod has been replaced from time to time but should always be exactly 46.5cm long. A few minor components have also been replaced either before the work was presented by the artist or subsequently, with his agreement, because they had burnt out or were worn out, including the adjustable contact screw, the contact spring, and the grub and screw lock housing the rod. However, despite these small changes, the work is still basically in its original form.

As it was too fragile to lend to the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition The Machine in 1968, Gabo gave permission for a replica to be made, with the proviso that it should not be for sale. Witt Wittnebert, who made it, has written an article about the reconstruction which is also published in Techne, 1, No.1, 14 April 1969, p.5. A further reconstruction was made for the Tate by Ronald A. Woolner in 1974 to save the original from being damaged by excessive wear.

'Kinetic Sculpture (Standing Wave)' - or 'Kinetic Model' as it is sometimes known - was the earliest of Gabo's experiments with motion in sculpture and one of the first true kinetic sculptures. (The 'Rotary Glass Plate' by Marcel Duchamp, a completely independent experiment, was made in New York in the same year). However, according to Read, Olsen and Chanin, loc. cit., Gabo resented the need for the cumbersome motor and decided that 'only the future developments in heat and radio power will permit as yet unpredictable kinetic solutions'. It was followed in 1922 by a design for a kinetic construction consisting of an oscillating rod which in movement forms a volume, and in 1925 by the 'Monument for the Institute of Physics and Mathematics' containing a motion pattern.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.234-6, reproduced p.234