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    A Short History of Plastic
by Donald Kuspit
Naum Gabo
(1923, replica 1975)
Naum Gabo
Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave)
(1919-20, replica 1985)
"Plastic" has become a pejorative term, connoting the artificial and superficial, but in fact we ought to celebrate the invention of plastic, one of the most versatile of synthetic materials. When it is heated, plastic softens, so that it can be shaped into a variety of forms, which become rigid when it cools. This property has to do with its structure, which is constituted by a network of polymers, a relatively light and simple molecule that can be repeated ad infinitum.

The millions of polymers that form the network separate and slide apart on heating, and become entangled and firm again on cooling. It is its flexibility, light weight and simplicity that makes plastic the perfect symbol of modernity, with its perpetual concern for change, ease of use, and comprehensibility.

Very few artists have made plastic their medium, no doubt because of the technical knowledge required for its use, which is greater than that necessary to mold clay, and because it seems impersonal compared to clay.

Still the most notable artist was the first, Naum Gabo (1890-1977), who with great foresight proposed that modern constructions be of plastic, the antithesis of stone, not only because of the difference in weight, but because plastic can be transparent.

Plastic will not deteriorate as steel will -- rust is a symptom of decay -- nor break as glass will, making it an ideal and economical -- cost-effective -- material. Gabo gave plastic attractive esthetic form, ingeniously exploiting its flexibility, as his landmark Column (1923) -- an architectural monument in sculptural form -- indicates.

The first completely plastic building has yet to be constructed, but Gabo showed the way. His vision has not yet been realized -- although plastic building blocks have been used -- which hardly means it is invalid. He was a visionary in more ways than one, as his Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) (1920) shows. It is the first ever, and still remains a dazzling example of high-tech art -- technology used to generate esthetic excitement.

The first plastic was celluloid, which consisted of nitrocellulose that had been softened by camphor and vegetable oils. It was patented by the printer John W. Hyatt in 1870. In 1909 Leo Baekeland produced the first completely synthetic plastic, Bakelite, from phenol and formaldehyde.

The subsequent development of nylon, polyethylene and other plastics followed from advances in the basic understanding of molecular physics. All plastics are produced by some method of polymerization, the process of forming the long chains of molecules.

There are two majors kinds of plastic, thermosetting resins and thermoplastic resins. The latter can be melted and solidified repeatedly, unlike the former. Petroleum is the major source of plastics, but coal and cellulose are other raw materials.

Plastics can be formed by a variety of means, "including extrusion, blow-molding, calendering between rollers, thermosetting in hydraulic presses, injection molding, laminating by press, and casting. Foamed plastics are produced by forming gas bubbles in the molten material. Plastic products are further shaped and finished by means ranging from mechanical through laser machining, ultrasonic welding and radiation processing" (the 15th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, from which much of the information here was drawn).

It is worth noting that without polymers there would be no human beings, and probably very little civilization. The human body consists of polymeric materials, and so does all animal and plant tissue, and such organic substances as proteins, wood, resin, and chitin (the hard coating on insects). Diamond, quartz, feldspar, concrete, porcelain, glass, textiles, paper and rubber, as well as plastic, are mostly or entirely polymeric. But it was not until the 20th century that the common feature of all these materials was clearly recognized: the very large (macro) molecules that constitute them.

The Encyclopaedia notes: "Because of their easy manipulation, economical manufacture, low specific gravity, and resistance to corrosion, plastics have replaced metal, wood, glass and other materials in many applications. An immense array of plastic industrial and consumer goods is available."

Hooray for a plastic world! Let us celebrate the inevitable plastic future, if not in art, which tends to remain behind the technical times -- perhaps because it is stubbornly individualistic -- however up-to-date it tries to be.

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.

In the bookstore:
Constructing Modernity: The Art and Career of Naum Gabo