During Naum Gabo’s stay in London, from March 1936 to September 1939, and then at Carbis Bay in Cornwall during the Second World War, he produced a series of important works in plastic, including Construction on a Line, 1935-7 (Tate T03054), Construction in Space (Crystal), 1937-9 (Tate T06978) and Construction in Space with Crystalline Centre. 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 with Crystalline Centre, made entirely from transparent planes, provided an elegant formal solution to the challenge which Gabo had set himself twenty years earlier, that of expressing the dynamic interior of objects.

This is the first of three works on the crystalline theme, the second and third being larger versions produced in perspex (see Tate T06977). Gabo was working on the series after his move to Cornwall, and the second version appears in a photograph taken by the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-75) during the Second World War, showing it against the background of the sea at Carbis Bay. Gabo’s use of materials in the final, enlarged versions was particularly important in the development of his plastic sculpture. Highlighting the relationship between inner and outer elements, he contrasted the rectilinear crystalline centre, made from two tetrahedrons of perspex wrapped around thinner celluloid sheets, with the flowing, curvilinear edges made of perspex. The effect is of a self-contained core rotating in space. Keenly experimenting with different plastics in the 1930s, Gabo 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). He used opaque plastics and then celluloid before being introduced to perspex in the mid-1930s by Sisson. First marketed in 1935, it was not only transparent and flexible but far more stable than the cellulose acetates he had previously used.

While Gabo had drawn inspiration from architecture, mechanics and science in some of his earlier constructions, his work during this period was more directly inspired by mathematical models. The purity of form in Construction in Space with Crystalline Centre is redolent of abstract mathematics or natural, organic rhythms. Similar in its standing relief form to Construction on a Line, this piece further explores the dynamics of space, creating interweaving lines and surfaces which pierce through both literal and implied planes. The construction’s assymetry adds a sense of dynamism and centrifugal energy, perhaps inspired by Gabo’s interest in modern physics, particularly in recent discoveries which delineated the physical universe as a continuous field of forces, and in theories of spatial curvature which posited that space itself was curved. In addition, his use of the word ‘crystalline’ 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 his plastic constructions of the 1930s, and contemporaries were struck by their technological experimentation, fanciful asymmetry and unexpected form.

Further Reading:
Martin Hammer and Christina Lodder, Constructing Modernity: The Art and Career of Naum Gabo, New Haven and London 2000, pp.261-3
Steven A. Nash and Jörn Merkert (eds.), Naum Gabo: Sixty Years of Constructivism, Munich 1985, pp.227-8, note to 46.1
Sean Rainbird, Naum Gabo: In Space and Time, exhibition catalogue, Tate St Ives, Cornwall 2002

Jacky Klein
September 2002