Collection Focus: Antoine Pevsner

An Abstact Realist

Constructivism, an artistic movement born during the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution, embraced abstraction as a means to represent intangible attributes of the universe at large. Amid social and political upheaval, Russian artists like Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner interpreted abstraction as the highest form of creative expression, a bridge to a more genuine reality based on scientific aspiration and spiritual transcendence. Pevsner, in particular, sought to employ a formal language that examined the visual relationship between positive and negative space, as well as movement and time.

Like many modern artists, the founders of Constructivism were influenced by the discovery of invisible phenomena like X-rays and wireless telegraphy. Prompted by these developments, early 20th-century scientists began to envision the universe as being in a state of constant flux. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, for instance, confirmed the existence of a space-time continuum that bent and stretched in accordance with gravity, thereby manipulating the perception of events at different distances. Scientists also began developing instruments to measure the interactions of subatomic particles and observe the process of radioactive decay.

The discovery of this new, invisible reality encouraged artists to eschew all forms of replicative naturalism. In 1920 Gabo wrote “The Realistic Manifesto,” a seminal document that outlined the goals of Constructivism, which his brother Pevsner affirmed with his signature. He stated:

Space and time are the only forms on which life is
built and hence art must be constructed…
That is why we in creating things take away from them
the labels of their owners… leaving only the reality of
the constant rhythm of the forces in them.1

Gabo proclaimed that artists examine spatial presence alone, disagreeing with prominent Constructivists like Vladimir Tatlin, who thought artists should serve an egalitarian agenda. Consequently, the brothers began incorporating voids of empty space in their sculptures, using linear contours to define volume without compiling additional mass.

Originally a painter, Pevsner began experimenting with sculpture as early as 1917 under his brother’s guidance. He started small, creating bas-reliefs that combined planar geometries in overlapping layers, eventually progressing to free-standing sculpture by the 1920s. Like Gabo, he examined the visual effects of transparent plastics by creating abstract portraits and figures. But Pevsner abandoned these materials after a few years in favor of the solidity and permanence afforded by metal. Determined to revamp traditional casting methods, he invented a new sculptural process, which he hoped would reflect Constructivist aims.

This process dictated Pevsner’s best-known body of work, the Developable Surface Series, from 1939 until his death in 1962. The sculptures made of small brass rods carefully bent and soldered together, examine the relationship between surface and volume with forms reminiscent of mathematical models. According to scholar Beth Edelstein, Pevsner chose brass for its industrial malleability, so he could build, rather than cast, his sculptures. Upon completion, Pevsner added a reflective coating to his works, made from metallic dust suspended in epoxy resin. From start to finish, each piece required hours of physical labor and intense concentration, solidifying Pevsner’s role as both an artist and a craftsman.2

One example, entitled Dynamic Projection at Thirty Degrees, illustrates Pevsner’s concern with light, movement, and spatial perception. Made of sweeping curves composed around a central diagonal, the design encourages viewers to evaluate the sculpture from various perspectives. The diagonal, angled at roughly 30 degrees, affirms the Constructivist objective of interpreting universal laws through the lens of human experience. When designing his sculptures, Pevsner refused to follow strict measurements or geometric proofs, stating, “When one wishes to grasp the sincerity of an art work, then intuition, the human spirit, and judgment are the only productive faculties available.”3 Pevsner also varied the striations across the planar surface, creating reflective patches that suggest the delicate fabric of space-time relativity.

Originally sculpted in 1950, Dynamic Projection at Thirty Degrees was then cast by Pevsner in a bronze edition of three. The final cast, produced in 1961 and purchased by Raymond and Patsy Nasher in 1983, resides at the Nasher Sculpture Center.

Although the Soviet government officially denounced Constructivism by the 1930s, the movement continued to influence Western artists in the decades to follow. After World War I, László Moholy-Nagy revised the Bauhaus curriculum to endorse abstraction across multiple disciplines, while artists like Barbara Hepworth adapted the principles of Constructivism to the British avant-garde. Minimalist Dan Flavin, known for his use of fluorescent lights, created a series of the sculptures in the 1960s in honor of the Constructivist legacy, titled Monument to V. Tatlin. Building off the notion of the memorial, contemporary sculptor Bettina Pousttchi fashioned the series Double Monument for Flavin and Tatlin; the tenth work in the series was exhibited at the Nasher Sculpture Center in the summer of 2014 and subsequently was acquired by the Nasher.

In an effort to depict the invisible forces at work in the universe, Pevsner helped redefine the role of contemporary sculpture. He encouraged artists to consider space as a material in its own right, thereby paving the way for successive generations who continued to ruminate on the flaws and virtues of Constructivist formalism. But Pevsner refused to eliminate the human element, stating:

In my work I regard space as an unending expanse…
In science one is engaged directly with objective
knowledge and logic. But in art this is not the case;
instead, it is a feeling of passion that moves an artist—
it is love, it is poetry.


Written by Jessie Stephens, Nasher Sculpture Center Curatorial Intern 

 

1 Chipp, Herschel B., and Peter Selz.Theories of modern art: a source book by artists and critics. (Berkeley: University of California Press,1968), 328.

2 Edelstein, Beth. “The materials and methods of Antoine Pevsner’s sculpture.” MA diss., New York University, Institute of Fine Arts, 2004.

3 Pevsner, Antoine. “Science Foils Poetry.” Leonardo 10, no. 4 (1977): 324.

4Ibid.