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  • From Lamps to Enlightened Materialism: Naum Gabo and the Problem of Functionalist Design
  • John Lessard (bio)

In a 1928 article published in the Bauhaus magazine, Naum Gabo offers a timely, if scathing, critique of what he saw as the Bauhaus’s deterioration into a mere style factory nearly a decade after its founding. Titled simply “gestaltung?” (i.e., “Design”) and punctuated with an accusatory question mark, Gabo’s article offers a critique of two Bauhaus lamps that is ultimately targeted against the cult of functionalism that had come into vogue in the post-war period.1 The problem, for Gabo, wasn’t in functionalism per se, but in the use of such words to obscure an essentially decorative application. And the timing of the article itself corresponds not just with the rising specter of the 1930s, but also with an important change of guard at the Bauhaus as it underwent one of several important transformations. In this case, a total policy change was triggered in 1928 by the voluntary departure of Bauhaus director and founder, Walter Gropius, and the subsequent accession to power of Gabo’s friend, Hannes Meyer—a Marxist architect whom Gropius appointed as his replacement. Meyer’s stridently Marxist reformulation of what he saw as the Bauhaus’s increasingly aestheticized orientation led to an embattled, which is not to say unsuccessful, tenure there before he immigrated to Soviet Russia, Gabo’s homeland, in 1931. Gabo’s intervention in the Bauhaus debate of 1928 helps clarify the context-specific opposition between formalism and functionalism generated by that debate, but also helps situate Gabo’s own sculptural idiom and the oscillating critical reception of his work in the thirty plus years since his death in 1977. [End Page 779]

The criticism Gabo levels at the Bauhaus lamps is doubly meaningful because it metaphorically addresses problems of materiality and objectification that Gabo had come increasingly to work out in his own sculpture—through translucent materials, for example, and a shift in focus from the investigation of sculptural masses to a “stereometric” approach to space. Representations of his work in a 1931 issue of Das Neue Frankfurt similarly underscore the affinity of Gabo’s art with lamps and lighting by juxtaposing three of his spatial constructions with two wall lamps by Otto Rittweger.2 In other words, his choice of Bauhaus lamps as the means for a critique of functionalist discourse wasn’t purely accidental. A founding figure of Russian Constructivism, Gabo’s innovative use of industrial materials (e.g., metal, glass, and newly developed plastics or celluloid) helped introduce a fresh set of materials to the more conventional materials of sculpture beginning in 1920. In the relatively new industry of plastics, this choice of materials earned Gabo unusual respect, as is evident, for example, in a 1938 article in the British technical journal Plastics: “to us, perhaps, part of the delight [of Gabo’s constructions] was due to the brilliant technique involved, as any worker in cellulose acetate will admit.”3

However it was also his constructive method that allowed him to transform the old ideas of volume and mass that had defined traditional, and even cubist, sculpture. In place of the more subjective processes of carving and molding, Gabo assembled forms from constituent parts that tended, in turn, to allow the generation of new possibilities even as they articulated one particular form. His constructive method, in other words, created a rubric of forms that could be manipulated much as if they were meant for mass production, rather than the creation of one-off aesthetic objects. As Herbert Read puts it, “his constructions are not objets d’art; they belong to no bourgeois artistic tradition . . . [his] new materials and new methods of working are awaiting a new generation of artists to create with them the monuments of a new civilization.”4 Rather than simply offering these industrial materials as the new sculptural content, Gabo imported them to the heart of the sculptural task and developed a constructivism based on industrial methods. His constructivism is therefore related to that of Russian Constructivism proper, but would remain deeply critical of its tendency to perpetuate precisely the antiquated aesthetic ideology it claimed to...


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pp. 779-798
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