KATARZYNA KOBRO’S SPATIAL COMPOSITION 5 (1929) is a lesson in economy. Constructed from welded planes of white-painted steel, the tabletop sculpture is just over 25 inches on its longest side. Despite this material modesty, it is a work of staggering complexity, an effect of what is physically absent as much as what is present. Horizontal in orientation, the sculpture is supported by a long rectangular plane that can be described as a base only in the loosest sense of the term: the adjoining verticals project out beyond it, barely grazing its edges, bisected by other planes along the way. Ribboning through the construction’s center as a counterpoint to this arrangement of orthogonals is an S-shaped curve lifting off the ground plane and terminating in a kind of stepped ceiling.
But the work also incorporates another, more fugitive set of forms: the geometric shadows cast by the sculpture’s components on the surrounding surfaces, thereby extending and augmenting the sculpture’s planar structure so convincingly that it’s difficult to tell at a glance where the metal begins and ends. (The first time I saw this work in person, I mistook one particularly sharp-edged shadow for gray paint.) Yet this description is in many respects misleading, or at least very partial. Look from a different angle, and you will see something else entirely: a flat vertical rectangle that gives way to an openwork cube, delineated by two irregular planes that meet at a right angle, echoed by a zigzagging shadow below. The sculpture isn’t a static arrangement of geometric forms so much as a changeable sequence of distinct views and spatial relationships made possible by the viewer’s perambulations. It doesn’t merely occupy space, it defines it, giving it a kind of palpable presence of its own.
When the Museum of Modern Art in New York reopened in 2019, Spatial Composition 5 was among the works given new prominence in its dramatically overhauled collection galleries. More recently, in early 2022, it anchored an arrangement of works at MoMA titled “Katarzyna Kobro: Shaping Space,” an intergenerational survey of geometric abstraction including works by Kobro’s colleagues and contemporaries (Aleksandr Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevich, László Moholy-Nagy) as well as postwar artists like Donald Judd, Lygia Clark, and Ulrike Müller. Spatial Composition 5 is, however, not part of MoMA’s collection at all, but a five-year loan from Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland. That institution, cofounded by the artist and her husband, the painter Władysław Strzemiński, in 1931—making it the second-oldest modern art museum in the world, after MoMA itself—has long served as the primary repository for the couple’s works.
Fewer than 20 of Kobro’s sculptures are still extant, supplemented by a handful of posthumous reconstructions made by art historian and curator Janusz Zagrodzki and Kobro’s former student Bolesław Utkin between 1968 and 1972. The rest were casualties of 20th-century Central European history: some were discarded by the Germans who commandeered Kobro’s Łódź apartment after the artist and her family fled following the Nazi invasion of the city in 1939; others, Kobro burned after running out of firewood during the brutal winter of 1945. Those that survived did so against the odds: Kobro’s and Strzemiński’s works, along with the rest of the modernist art in the Muzeum Sztuki collection, were officially declared degenerate in 1941. Yet this limited oeuvre is among the most decisive in the entire history of modernist sculpture, for it attempts to resolve two conflicting imperatives in modernism, and especially the Constructivist tradition: a deep commitment to formal experimentation on the one hand, and to social utility on the other.
Though the significance of her work has been acknowledged only intermittently, Kobro isn’t exactly unknown. She has been the subject of numerous exhibitions, with and without Strzemiński, at major museums since at least the 1970s. In January, she was the subject of a Google Doodle in honor of her 124th birthday. Though gender and geography have been barriers to Kobro’s full canonization, her work also poses certain intractable problems for our understanding of modernism’s historical trajectory. As art historian Yve-Alain Bois argues in his 1984 essay “Kobro and Strzemiński: In Search of Motivation,” Kobro’s and Strzemiński’s works of the interwar years arrived at once too early and too late, shockingly anticipating the formal and theoretical signposts of postwar modernism—medium specificity and Minimalist sculpture’s “theatrical” concatenation of space and time—in a way that not only alters that trajectory, but fundamentally threatens its ideological foundations.
Three decades later, the story of modernism has been pretty thoroughly troubled, as best exemplified by MoMA’s flexible rehang itself, which not only introduced artists from the margins of the canon, but provocatively incorporated teleological ruptures into the display, like the juxtaposition of Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1906) and Faith Ringgold’s Die (1967). Perhaps it’s time to ask again: what happens to the history of 20th-century sculpture if we try to account for the timing of Kobro’s works? And where might it have gone if her career had not been cut short?
THOUGH THEIR NAMES ARE SYNONYMOUS with Poland’s interwar avant-garde, both Kobro and Strzemiński spent their formative years in the waning Russian Empire, and began their careers amid the post-revolutionary ferment of the early Soviet Union. Born in Moscow in 1898 to a Baltic German father and Russian mother, Kobro was raised primarily in Riga, returning with her family to Moscow as a teenager at the onset of World War I. She first met Strzemiński—an ethnic Pole born in Minsk and initially educated as an engineer in St. Petersburg—in 1916, while volunteering at a military hospital where he was a badly wounded patient, having lost both an arm and a leg in battle as an officer with the imperial army.
Kobro began her artistic training in 1917 at the Moscow School for Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, where she joined the Left Federation of the Moscow Union of Painters, led by Olga Rozanova, Malevich, and Rodchenko, and continued her studies there when the school reformed as SVOMAS (the Free State Art Studios) the following year, when Strzemiński also enrolled. SVOMAS had little in the way of a fixed curriculum; workshop leaders were elected rather than appointed, and students were free to choose which one to join. Kobro gravitated to Vladimir Tatlin, Strzemiński to Malevich. Though neither student was a particularly dedicated Communist, the pair enthusiastically participated in early Soviet artistic life, relishing the experimental freedom of these reconstituted institutions and the state’s initial openness to the avant-garde.
Strzemiński began working for IZO Narkompros (the fine art section of the People’s Commissariat for Education), codirecting the All-Russian Bureau of Art Exhibitions with Antoine Pevsner; Kobro, who remained enrolled at SVOMAS, was aligned with—though seems never to have formally joined—the radical student group OBMOKhU (the Society of Young Artists), whose members were at the forefront of the development of Constructivism. In 1920, Strzemiński was appointed to run a regional IZO branch in the provincial western city of Smolensk, and Kobro followed him there a few months later. The artists, who had maintained close ties with Malevich, by that time based in nearby Vitebsk, established a teaching studio modeled on Malevich’s UNOVIS and created agitational graphics for ROSTA, the Russian Telegraph Agency.
Only three of Kobro’s sculptures from this era have been conclusively identified, none of which survives. Her earliest known work, ToS 75—Struktura (1920), is reproduced in the couple’s 1931 book Composing Space: Calculating Space-Time Rhythms with the caption “contrasts of facture and form in materials.” The sculpture, a compact, columnar assemblage of found objects and industrial scrap—machine parts, bolts, screws, bits of wood and cork, and, at the top, a glass panel with “ToS 75” inscribed on either side—is clearly indebted to Tatlin’s constructions, reflecting his emphasis on what he called the “culture of materials.”
A pair of works probably made in Smolensk in 1921–22 reflects a significant shift in direction. Known as Suspended Construction 1 and 2, they were designed to hang from barely visible lengths of wire, as if floating in space, not unlike the hanging constructions Rodchenko showed at the third OBMOKhU exhibition in spring 1921. Suspended Construction 1 featured a solid ovoid form, likely painted white and hung at an oblique angle, with a thin metal rod projecting from its bottom and a dark cube affixed to the side, while Suspended Construction 2 took the form of a metal Möbius strip with a cross and a circle attached to a serrated arm.
By 1922, the political winds in the Soviet Union had shifted: IZO was reorganized the year before, with the party bureaucracy asserting tighter control over artistic production and institutions. Kobro and Strzemiński also recognized that their outlook was increasingly at odds with that of their former Constructivist colleagues, who adopted the motto “art into production” while redefining the artist as a new kind of privileged engineer or inventor whose works belonged on the assembly line rather than in the exhibition hall. In his essay “Notes on Russian Art” (1922), published in the Polish Futurist journal Zwrótnica, Strzemiński offers a scathing assessment of Productivism, characterizing it as not only a misguided abandonment of art’s true purpose—“the rebellion of technology against art, led…by the artists themselves”—but also a kind of poisoned chalice. “Productivist trends are an outcome of a compromise between new art and the authorities in the Soviet Union,” he writes, presciently concluding that “in Russian conditions, art either exists as official art or does not exist at all.” Deciding that their situation was no longer tenable, Kobro and Strzemiński illegally crossed the border into Poland, where they spent the rest of their careers.
If these two artists rejected the Productivist imperative to direct their artistic skills toward expressly utilitarian ends, it was not out of an apolitical dedication to art for art’s sake. In fact, they believed that their Soviet colleagues, eager to leave the “laboratory” phase of Constructivism behind, had foreclosed on art’s true capacity for utility, which lay not in designing consumer goods or architectural interiors, but in researching and articulating essential principles of form while discovering new ways to inhabit and activate space. The lessons of that practice could be applied to almost anything, including the organization of social life as a whole.
OVER THE COURSE OF THE 1920s, Kobro and Strzemiński developed the theoretical program they would eventually term “Unism.” Along the way, they belonged to a succession of mostly short-lived avant-garde groups in Poland, whose internal disputes helped them refine their position. Blok—short for the Bloc of Cubists, Constructivists, and Suprematists—was active from 1924 to 1926, publishing 11 issues of an eponymous journal, before falling apart over tensions between Strzemiński and fellow cofounder Mieczysław Szczuka, an ardent Communist who rejected conventional media like painting and sculpture in favor of the agitational potential of typography and photomontage.
After Blok’s dissolution, the couple, intrigued by the possibilities for putting their spatial research into practice, briefly joined the architecture-oriented group Praesens, but ultimately concluded that its members were too well-versed in the “architecture of compromise,” as Strzemiński later wrote. Finally, in 1929, with former Blok member Henryk Stażewski and poets Julian Przyboś and Jan Brzękowski, they formed Grupa “a.r.,” which alternately stood for awangarda rzeczywista (real avant-garde) or artyści rewolucyjni (revolutionary artists). Active until 1936, Grupa “a.r.” shared a loose aesthetic program, but its primary activity revolved around publishing theoretical texts and, eventually, organizing the Muzeum Sztuki’s founding collection of modern art.
Whereas the “Suspended Constructions” explored the interpenetration of sculpture and space by literally lifting pieces into the air, Kobro’s works of the mid-1920s, made after she settled in Poland, took up the possibilities of openwork construction. The works comprising “Abstract Sculpture 1–3”(all 1924) juxtapose eclectic materials and textures in the manner of ToS 75, but without its dense accumulation of matter. Instead, discrete elements are spaciously arrayed along a vertical axis, with the base absorbed into the composition rather than functioning as a mere support. In Abstract Sculpture 1, a metal hoop with a ball suspended at its center is flanked by two glass planes, the components all balanced atop a tall base without touching one another. Abstract Sculpture 2, by contrast, has a circular base that remains empty, with curving metal components affixed to either side to form a rectangle, with an aluminum loop dangling over the pedestal’s surface. The base of Abstract Sculpture 3 has been reduced to an irregularly shaped disc, on which Kobro has balanced a columnar arrangement of curves and planes.
Kobro’s real breakthrough, however, came the following year, in the form of her first Spatial Composition. Crystallizing her understanding of the relationship between sculptural form and ambient space, the nine known “Spatial Compositions,” completed between 1925 and 1933, are the clearest articulations of Unist principles in sculpture. In Spatial Composition 1, the base as such disappears: made entirely of painted steel planes arranged in an L-shaped plan, the sculpture is a sequence of partly enclosed volumes that frame rectangular voids. Spatial Composition 2 (1928), meanwhile, based around the repeated module of a square, is a study in the spatial effects of fixed proportions, suggesting a cube from which segments have been selectively redacted while prompting the viewer to still intuit their presence.
Other works in the series are more complex and disjunctive. Spatial Composition 4 (1929) likewise employs a fixed ratio (5:8:5) determining the relation between its parts, but adds a more elaborate polychrome scheme. The loosely rectangular structure of intersecting orthogonal planes, with a central white U-shaped curve, is precisely articulated yet subtly confounded through Kobro’s application of paint, distributing primary colors as well as black and gray noncontiguously across the composition, with each side of a given component painted a different color. As a result, the thin edges of each metal sheet take on a new sense of depth depending on the angle of view, changing from two dimensions to three and back again as the viewer circles the work.
In Composing Space: Calculating Space-Time Rhythms, Kobro and Strzemiński advance a novel view of sculptural history that doubles as both an explanation of and a manifesto for Unist work. Copiously illustrated with photographs and diagrammatic drawings of Kobro’s works, the text charts the trajectory of sculpture’s progressive merging with space, from what the authors characterize as the totally closed volumes of ancient Egyptian sculpture, through the “architectonization” of the Gothic, to the dynamism of Baroque sculpture (which “takes on properties that allow it to fly through space, drill a path through it, to overcome space instead of linking to it”). The history culminates in Unist work, in which sculpture and space become one.
Early advocates of the principle of medium-specificity, Kobro and Strzemiński argue that Unism manifests differently in painting and in sculpture. Because paintings have an inherent limit in the borders of the canvas, the painting’s true nature is to be self-contained and indifferent to anything outside the support. (Strzemiński’s “Unist Painting” series of 1931–34 beats Frank Stella to deductive structure by about 30 years.) Sculpture, however, has no such limits, thus the medium’s natural condition is to be unified with its surroundings. As a result, Unist sculpture posits an ambulatory perceiving body, incorporating not just space but the temporal aspect of movement. “Both sculpture and architecture should not be seen as static objects created by four discretely constructed sides,” they write, “but primarily as the process of the passage from one side to another, a function of the changes that happen when we move from one side to another, a spatial rhythm that occurs over time.” And since “any point in space has the same significance as any other,” a sculpture’s components must all be treated as equally important.
Composing Space hints at the implication of this approach: Unism is ultimately about the pursuit of ideal form—rational, nonhierarchical, economical, elegant, and functional—which was as true for social organization as it was for sculptural composition. In subsequent texts, Kobro was more explicit about the broader social vision embedded within her work. In a statement published in the magazine Forma in 1935, she criticized people unable to conceive of sculpture outside of conventional commemorative frameworks like the monument or the memorial. “Sculpture should become an architectural issue, a laboratory experiment into methods of resolving space, into the organization of traffic, an urban planning that sees the city as a functional organism, using the possibilities offered by contemporary art, science, and technology. It should reflect the desire for the supra-individual organization of society.”
Later, in the 1937 essay “A Sculpture Is…,” Kobro reiterates the idea that the Unist sculpture is intended not as a self-sufficient object, but a “laboratory experiment” designed to invent new ways of organizing the movement of bodies and objects in space. Art, she concludes, “should be neither a luxury nor an aesthetic contemplation of forms with which the artist has ornamented the surrounding reality…. The domain of art is the production of socially useful form.”
BY THE MID-1930s, Kobro had effectively stopped creating new sculptures, in part because of the 1936 birth of her and Strzemiński’s daughter, Nika, who was frequently ill and, like Strzemiński himself, required significant care. But it also hints at political shifts, namely the rise of fascism and the looming threat of another world war.
Was it still possible to be a utopian if you lived in Poland in 1937? Jarosław Suchan, a longtime director of Muzeum Sztuki, recently argued that Kobro and Strzemiński did not so much abandon their utopianism as “gradually [reorient] their efforts toward reality ‘here and now.’” This is evident in the increasingly functionalist tenor of both artists’ writings during these years, but also in their overriding focus on establishing a public institution for modernist art that would both promote and preserve tendencies that they knew were always at risk of being stamped out. (The recent purge of progressive museum directors, including Suchan, by Poland’s far-right government makes clear that the threat remains alive today.) Along with the other members of Grupa “a.r.,” they found an advocate in a Łódź city councilman in charge of the departments of culture and education, who offered them a space for their incipient collection. They then leveraged their international contacts, forged through groups like Cercle et Carré and Abstraction-Création, to successfully solicit donations of artworks from figures such as Hans Arp, Fernand Léger, Amédée Ozenfant, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Joaquín Torres-García, Theo van Doesburg, and Picasso.
Yet arguably such a dialectic between utopianism and pragmatism runs throughout Kobro’s Unist oeuvre, emblematized by the relative ease with which her works have been reconstructed. This is often mentioned as an aside, almost as if a stroke of good luck, given the cruel fate suffered by most of her pieces. But their capacity for reconstruction is fundamental to these sculptures, even if not explicitly acknowledged by the artist herself. In part, this is because Unism de-emphasizes the art object as such: each sculpture was a demonstration of formal and spatial relationships; ratios and proportions mattered more than scale; and none of the works, conceived as formal experiments rather than precious objects, were ever for sale. The massive outdoor replica of Spatial Composition 4 made for a 1986 exhibition in Elbląg, Poland, seems perfectly consistent with Kobro’s own intentions, perhaps even the sort of thing she might have tried herself if she’d had the requisite material resources. At the same time, the essential property of a sculptural idea is that it is relocatable, rebuildable. It would be too convenient, too mystical, to say that Kobro somehow presaged her work’s inevitable destruction, but she certainly spent enough of her life in motion, responding to shifting circumstances, to be skeptical about permanence.
When the German army arrived in Łódź in September 1939, the artists retreated with their daughter to the Eastern city of Wilejka (now Vileyka, Belarus), where Strzemiński’s extended family lived, only to find it occupied by the Soviet Union shortly thereafter. A few months later, they managed to return to Łódź, and attempted to recover the works they had left behind. Though Kobro refused to identify herself as a person of German descent on the Deutsche Volksliste, she opted to sign the so-called “Russian list” (made up mostly of anti-Soviet White Russian émigrés) against Strzemiński’s wishes, protecting the family against deportation or worse, but dooming her marriage—and her postwar career—in the process.
After the war ended, the couple divorced, and Kobro and others who had renounced their Polish citizenship during the occupation were prosecuted. While she avoided prison, Kobro was all but barred from participating in public artistic life: she was dropped from the rolls of the Association of Polish Visual Artists, preventing her from exhibiting her work or teaching, as she had done throughout the 1920s and ’30s, and was reduced to selling felt trinkets to eke out a meager living. She died of cancer in 1951, impoverished and forgotten.
Kobro produced only a handful of sculptures in her final, postwar years: a group of small plaster nudes that depict the female body as a compactly abstracted mass, defined by concave and convex modeling. In fact, the nudes were not so much a departure as a return. In the mid-1920s, alongside her first Spatial Compositions, Kobro created another group of nudes (three of which are known) that are incongruous with the Unist sculptural principles she was then working out. As she described in a response to a 1933 questionnaire published in Abstraction-Création, the nudes served as a kind of respite from the pressures of real intellectual and creative work: “I sculpt after nature as one would go to the cinema for a better rest.” In the 1940s, unable to maintain faith in the utopian aspirations that had driven her earlier, Kobro retreated into the intimacy of the individual body, exchanging a transformative social vision for a private one.
This article appears under the title “Making Space” in the September 2022 issue, pp. pp. 56–63.