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.
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.