‘Space is really my material. The sculpture is there to act on it, to make it reveal itself.’
Created in 1957-1958, Linear Construction in Space No. 2 is a unique variation on one of Naum Gabo’s most accomplished sculptural constructions, originally conceived as part of the artist’s first important public commission following his arrival in the United States. An exhibition alongside his brother Antoine Pevsner at The Museum of Modern Art in New York during the opening months of 1948 had brought Gabo to the attention of Nelson Rockefeller, who subsequently commissioned the artist to create designs for the two lobbies of the recently completed Esso Oil Company building at 75 Rockefeller Plaza. Gabo saw the commission as an opportunity to promote the cause of Constructivist art in his new homeland, describing his aims for the project in a letter to his close friend, Sir Herbert Read: ‘I have the feeling that here is a case where I simply have to show what Constructive art can do in connection with architecture … to prove that the Constructive sculpture is not just a theory for heaven but a very real, aesthetic solution to our everyday life’ (N. Gabo, quoted in M. Hammer & C. Lodder, Constructing Modernity: The Art & Career of Naum Gabo, New Haven & London, 2000, p. 322).
Linear Construction in Space No. 2 developed directly from Gabo’s designs for the larger of the two entrances to the Esso building, for which he envisioned a triptych of constructions – a large, bas-relief sculpture mounted on a stretch of wall near the elevator banks, along with two upright, stringed sculptures positioned above the revolving doors that marked the entrance to the building. Designed to rotate in a manner similar to the doors, Gabo intended this pair of sculptures to be seen from all angles, their continuously moving forms revealing a myriad of different reflections and patterns to visitors as they passed through the space. Although Rockefeller was an enthusiastic supporter of Gabo’s designs, the board of the Esso Oil Company balked at the costs for fabricating the sculptures, and rejected the plan. Rockefeller paid Gabo for his time, and the artist presented his models to The Museum of Modern Art, before continuing on to another public commission. However, the forms he developed for the rotating sculptures continued to occupy Gabo’s imagination, and the artist returned to the designs several times over the ensuing years, creating a number of different versions of the sculpture on a variety of scales.
With its dynamically complex, curvilinear form, asymmetrical profile and elaborate network of nylon strings emanating from its centre, Linear Construction in Space No. 2 is a masterful exploration of the fundamental principles which fascinated Gabo most throughout his career – light, space, and rhythm. The delicate nylon filaments catch the light as they activate the space within the sculpture, throwing up reflections as their taut lines weave their way between the Perspex elements, crossing and interweaving through the space. ‘Space is really my material,’ Gabo once proclaimed. ‘The sculpture is there to act on it, to make it reveal itself’ (N. Gabo, quoted in ‘Naum Gabo: “space is Not Outside US”’, The Times, 15 March 1966). The present Linear Construction in Space No. 2 was created as a gift for the poet, art historian and critic Sir Herbert Read, with whom Gabo enjoyed an enduring friendship for over three decades. Read wrote a number of essays on Gabo’s work for various publications and exhibition catalogues, leading the artist to remark in a letter to Read: ‘I don’t know anyone who could give a more comprehensive account of what I have done in my work and make clear to the public what I am aiming at. May I add that I don’t know anybody else amongst my contemporaries to whom I would be as near spiritually as I am to you’ (N. Gabo, letter to H. Read, 10 January 1956, quoted in S.A. Nash & J. Merket, Naum Gabo: Sixty Years of Constructivism, exh. cat., Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas 1985, p. 237).
Following Read’s death in 1968, Gabo produced another version of Linear Construction No. 2 which he presented to the Tate in memory of his friend, choosing this design not only because he knew it was among Read’s favourites from his oeuvre, but also because he believed the sculpture to contain a sense of serenity that reminded him of the man himself.