Artist who sculpted space
'The new architecture is anti-cubic . . . it does not try to freeze the different functional space cells in one closed cube,' wrote Theo van Doesburg in 1924, the year that his De Stijl colleague Rietveld realised the Schroder House in Utrecht. Meanwhile Mies was working towards the spatial liberation of the Barcelona Pavilion in 1929. In this same decade, clearly conscious of their architectural implications, Katarzyna Kobro made the sculptures now on show at the Henry Moore Institute, as radical as anything of that time in their spatial concerns.
Kobro, born in Moscow of Russian and German parents in 1898, spent her childhood in Latvia but studied at Moscow's School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in the aftermath of the revolution, with Malevich an inspiration and a friend. Settling soon afterwards in Poland, she became associated with the 'Blok' group of Constructivists, and with her artist husband Wladyslaw Strzeminski became an advocate of 'Unism'. One of their many texts contains this definition: 'Unist sculpture sculpts space, condensing it within the limits of its sculptural zone. The unist sculpture, based upon the organic unity of sculpture and space, does not want the form to be a goal in itself, but only the expression of spatial relationships.'
Many of Kobro's works have been lost or destroyed (being thought 'degenerate'); those that remain, sometimes reconstructed, are in Poland at the Museum Sztuki, Lodz. Although a few have been shown here previously at Kettle's Yard and the Whitechapel, this present exhibition draws on almost all of the Museum Sztuki's holdings and so is the first chance to see Kobro's oeuvre as a whole.
Arranged at regular intervals on a grid in the high-ceilinged, white- walled main room of the gallery are nine of Kobro's mature Spatial Sculptures and Spatial Compositions, all at waist-height on translucent pedestals. They are constructed from square and rectangular planes of sheet steel, the latter sometimes curved to form a vault-like shape which in some works is inverted. On two of the sculptures, the individual planes are picked- out in a Neo-Plasticist palette of primaries, grey, white and black (which establishes connections between physically separate parts), but the remainder are all painted white. Though occasionally they show their age, with abrasions or filigree cracks in the paint, the impression is of machine-finish precision as each component fuses smoothly with the next.
Kobro was guided by proportional systems, Golden Section and Fibonacci, in creating these works, which - very much anticipating post-war sculpture - demand to be seen in a 360degrees circuit. The rhythmic division of space was her goal, with the planes interrupting and inflecting it but never enclosing it, and any sense of mass or boundary dissolved. In Spatial Sculpture (1928) and Spatial Composition 4 (1929), the shifting inter- relationships that a walk around reveals seem calculated to a hair's breadth.
The installation of these works, all much the same size and given equal prominence, is apt: Kobro had found a sculptural language and examined it systematically. Next door, her architectural interests become explicit, at least as a proposition, in her Design for a Functional Nursery (1934) - though this serves more as a reminder that her sculptures were essentially an analogue for architecture, not maquettes for it. But back in the luminous main room, the utopian impulse behind Kobro's work is palpable: this is one of the most stunning ensembles of sculpture that the institute has shown.