Winter 1919-1920, taking him “three quarters of a year” to complete.
- Steel rod 46.5 cm long
- Electromagnet from factory bell
- Circular adjustable balance
- Black painted wooden box 61.5 x 24.1 x 19 cm
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.