It’s 1920. The glow of the Russian Revolution is everywhere and dialectical materialism is the philosophy de jour. Every aspect of life in Russian society is undergoing radical transformation. Avant-garde Russian artists are re-evaluating their heritage, their values, even their chosen careers. How can a function like art, that served so well the age of the Bourgeoisie, regain vitality and relevance in the era of Proletariat?
In the midst of all this, Naum Gabo stepped forward with his truly revolutionary manifesto. Its opening words make clear to the reader that he is in for a wild ride:
“Above the tempest of our weekdays/Across the ashes and cindered homes of the past/Before the gates of the vacant future/We proclaim…”
In less than a sentence, Gabo has stripped past, present and future of all content. He is preparing to introduce a radical new ontology, an ontology which turns out to be just as relevant today as it was revolutionary in 1920.
First however, he must deal with the artistic tradition. Beginning with a dismissal of Naturalism, Symbolism, Romanticism and Mysticism, Gabo goes on to reject recent efforts to free art from its past. Impressionism, Cubism and Futurism, he denounces by name. Then Gabo goes on to propose an Existentialist ethic:
“Everything is false – only life and its laws are real/And in life only the active is beautiful and strong, and wise, and right…/The deed is the highest and surest truth.”
That ethic turns out to be the foundation of his ontology. “Today is the deed.” Gabo does not deny the reality of past, present or future; nor does he deny the continuity of time. But the content of these categories is nothing but ashes, chaos (“tempest”) and void.
In Gabo’s ontology, there is only one class of actual entity: Deeds (or acts). Act does not take place within a pre-existent spatio-temporal continuum (Newton); act creates the spatio-temporal continuum. The Present is brought into being by the Deed and the Deed constitutes the content of the Present.
“Space and time were born for us today.” (We are reminded of Heraclitus: “The sun is new every day.”) And today is the deed! So it is the Deed that brings space and time into being. But the Deed exists only in the Present (past is ashes and future is vacant). So space and time exist only in the Present. Space and time have no independent existence of their own; they as aspects of the Present, created by the Deed.
But what does this have to do with Art?
“Space and time are the only forms…on which art must be constructed…/The realization of our perceptions of the world in the forms of space and time is the only aim of our…art.”
Art is Act (Deed); it creates its own Present. That Present in turn creates space and time which are the forms on which Art is constructed.
According to Gabo’s vision, Art can no longer be seen as something that occurs within space and time. Space and time now constitute the work itself; they themselves are its medium, the raw material of artistic creation. Each of Gabo’s works presents space-time in the eternal Present of the work itself.
Gabo’s ideas are so extreme that there is a natural tendency to want to minimize them. “Perhaps that is not really what he meant,” or “Perhaps he meant his ideas to be understood in the narrow context of artists’ shop talk.”
Fortunately for us, throughout his life, Gabo returned to the themes of the Realistic Manifesto, reasserting them and, when necessary, clarifying them. In 1939, he wrote, “Space and time are the two exclusive elements of real life; therefore to correspond to real life, art must be based on these two elements.” And as late as 1966, he wrote, “Space is really my material. The sculpture is there to act on it, to make it reveal itself.”
In 1937, he clarified the context in which the Realistic Manifesto should be understood. “The Constructive idea is not a programmatic one. It is not a technical scheme for an artistic manner…it is a general concept of the world…”
What is that “general concept of the world” and how is it manifest in works of Art?
The Realistic Manifesto spells that out too: “We reject…color…line…volume…mass.”
Color is characteristic of a surface; line, qua outline, is a one dimensional surface. The surfaces of massive objects cut off interior spaces from the rest of the world. Volume is characteristic of “a space” (e.g. an object’s interior space) rather than space itself.
What Gabo rejects is the notion of surfaces. Surfaces divide, and they hide. They transform the Heraclitean flow into the Cartesian grid. They are a symptomatic of a bourgeois world view, a rigid class society, ‘Upstairs/Downstairs’.
In place of a geometry of lines, surfaces and volumes and a physics of mass and duration, Gabo presents a unified model based on vector, depth, tension and rhythm.
- Gabo redefines line as “a direction of the static forces and their rhythm in objects”.
- In place of volume, he substitutes depth: “look at our space…what is it if not one continuous depth?”
- Instead of mass, he talks about “the static forces of a solid body” (today we might use the word “tension”).
- Finally, he redefines time as “Kinetic Rhythms” (which he describes as “the basic forms of our perception of real time”).
Gabo’s world consists of a single extensive dimension (depth) and two forms of movement: directional “space like” movement (vector) and oscillatory “time like” movement (rhythm).
But can so spare a model really account for the variety of experience we enjoy?
Gabo is not content to hypothesize and run. He devotes the rest of his career to creating sculptures, models, to demonstrate the viability and completeness of this vision. All of his works are really efforts to show that such a sparce inventory of elements is both necessary and sufficient to account for the phenomena of “real life”.