publication of the International Sculpture Center
Australia's Greatest Sculptor
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66 Metal Construction, 1955.
Enamel on brazed and welded steel, 140 x 93 x49 cm.
tribute exhibition to Australia's greatest sculptor" was the statement
on the invitation to the opening of Robert Klippel's exhibition at the
Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. The press release from the gallery
stated that "his vision stands alone in the history of Australian
art" and that Klippel is "arguably one of the most important
sculptors of his generation internationally." This was not advertising
hype from a commercial gallery, but the considered opinion of Deborah
Edwards, the curator, and of many art critics in Australiayet it
is possible that, outside Australia, remarkably few reading this article
have heard his name or know his work. In spite of numerous reviews in
Australia giving high praise, I have been unable to locate any critical
assessments of his sculpture by European or American writers.
This lack of overseas recognition partly results from Australia's isolation,
our distance from the centers of political power and artistic activity,
but it also stemmed from the artist's innate modesty and unwillingness
to promote himself or his work. Distance and the cost of transport have
been limiting factors for Australian sculptors who, until the last 10
or 15 years, barely showed their work interstate, let alone overseas.
The situation is now different, with artists exhibiting in Singapore,
Hong Kong, and Tokyo, as well as in Europe and America.
The recent retrospective
included work from Klippel's student years in 1946 through to sculpture
produced just before his death, aged 81, at the end of 2001. Filling seven
galleries with 150 sculptures, paintings, drawings, and collages, it was
a judiciously selected, beautifully displayed exhibition, showing only
a small fraction of Klippel's prodigious output, which is estimated at
1,300 pieces of sculpture and approximately 5,000 drawings. Yet quantity
alone does not prove greatness. It was his phenomenal creativity, his
overwhelming flow of ideas that made Klippel so special. His drawings
and collages often contain numerous images that he lacked time to explore.
As he said to Edwards, "One lifetime is not enough to do everything
I want to do."1
however, were not auspicious. From boyhood he had been interested in making
model boats, and, toward the end of World War II, he was employed by the
navy making models of aircraft to aid the recognition of planes. He was
24 before he began night classes at art school, and he only spent one
year as a full-time student at East Sydney Technical College before leaving
for London in 1947. London proved to be the catalyst that brought about
great changeKlippel abandoned figurative images and became fascinated
by Surrealism, producing some memorable images such as Entities Suspended
from a Detector (1948). Partly an organic form, partly a menacing mechanical
device, it hints at oppressive interrogation. A year in Paris, at a time
when many Surrealists had returned after the conclusion of World War II,
confirmed Klippel's interest in the unconscious and the intuitive. His
subsequent images may not have been immediately recognized as Surrealist,
but his life-long method of working tempered intuitive beginnings with
continuous reassessment. While in Paris, Klippel attended lectures by
Krishnamurti, which strengthened a life-long interest in Eastern religion
and philosophyBuddhism, Hinduism, and Zen.
198 Metal Construction, 1965.
Brazed and welded steel and found objects, 131.4 x 44.6 x 22.5
During his time in
London, Klippel began a series of drawings and filled his notebooks with
analytical diagrams of organic and mechanical objectseverything
from screws and cogs to insects and shells, even making detailed drawings
of the shapes and forms used by artists such as Henry Moore and Picasso.
His interests ranged from the collection of the British Museum to the
exotic plants in Kensington Gardens and catalogues of industrial machinery.
As early as 1945 Klippel had written that "sculpture must be 'revolutionized
without the human form," and he now began a series of experiments
to replace the traditional role of the figure in sculpture.2 Whereas Moore
had related the human figure to the forms of nature, Klippel set out on
a new path, to relate the forms of nature to the shapes and forms of machinery
in an industrial society. He made the statement that he wished "to
seek the inter-relationship between the cogwheel and the bud."3 It
was a quest that he was to follow for the rest of his life.
Working quickly and
freely, Klippel produced a great number of drawings and watercolors: explorations
of two dimensional shapes, investigations of sculptural ideas, and examinations
of a new attitude toward sculpture. No longer was he concerned with an
external skin. Instead, he was excited by inner structureshis drawings
seem to map the axis of the lines of tension within forms. This attention
to the skeletal structure, combined with his fascination with organic
forms, imparts an extraordinary sense of life and growth to his sculptures.
By the time Klippel
returned to Sydney in 1950, he was committed to construction as a method
of working and was producing totally abstract sculptures, which may have
been appreciated by his fellow artists but did not sell well in a relatively
conservative postwar society. Forced to work full-time, his production
dropped to a mere 18 pieces between 1950 and 1957. But there were significant
developments. He continued to produce works on paper, which are limited
in size but among the best abstract expressionist paintings produced in
Australia at this time. Whereas some of the paintings relied purely on
fortuity, as in Untitled, Chance based drawing (1954), a typical sculpture
of the time, No 66 Metal Construction (1955), shows a finely balanced
opposition of diagonals, a linear structure of steel rods with small flat
planes of black, white, and red.4 Color had indeed been an integral part
of Klippel's work from his early days in London and remained a basic concern
for the rest of his productive career.
to go to New York in 1957 can be seen as typical of the transformation
that occurred in Australia at this time. World War II and the threat of
invasion by the Japanese made it very clear that we could no longer depend
on Great Britain for protection and military support; we became aware
of our proximity to Asia, and America became our new ally and protector.
London and Paris were no longer the centers of the art worldNew
York now hosted the action, and it was to have a profound effect on Klippel.
He saw a major retrospective of the works of David Smith at the Museum
of Modern Art and became friendly with Richard Stankiewicz. Their use
of industrial materials and scrap metal influenced Klippel, who was to
make his own distinctive junk sculpture.
In 1958 he was invited to join the staff of the Minneapolis School of
Art, a position he held until 1962. London and Paris had seen the change
from carving to construction, from figurative images to abstraction, now
the materials changed from purchased industrial steel to junk materials.
In Minneapolis, just near his studio, Klippel found a junk shop and to
his joy discovered discarded typewriters whose delicate, intricate parts
virtually became his signature for several years. He also became aware
of the potential of other discarded or commonplace materials such as children's
plastic toy kits.
After another visit
to New York, Klippel returned to Australia in 1963 and over the next few
years produced some of his most remarkable junk sculpture. No 193 is a
delicate tower of intricate parts, while No 198 Metal Construction has
a compressed mass of cogs and pulleys that burst forth like a plant in
spring sending shoots out to the sun. Between 1965 and 1969 he worked
on one of his most ambitious works, No 247 Metal Construction. Not only
is it the biggest sculpture of this period, it is also the most complexan
extraordinarily intricate arrangement of delicate parts held together
in a very direct, basic composition. A tour de force, it must be seen
as one of the greatest works produced in Australia. In time it may be
recognized as one of the important sculptures of the 20th century. The
Sydney art critic Laurie Thomas praised the work in The Australian when
it was first shown at Bonython Gallery in early 1969: "It is not
only Klippel's personal masterpiece but one of the timeless works of art
to come out of the present day. It owes its materials exclusively to the
presentmachine-made parts and parts of machinesand the techniques
of its construction match the materials. That is to say there is no way
at all that this sculpture could have been made at any other time."5
As in his other junk sculptures of this period, Klippel achieved his underlying
aim to bring about a fusion of organic and mechanical formsthe whole
work grows as naturally as a plant, yet it is entirely constructed of
discarded machine parts. Reaching upward and outward, the branches are
subtly balanced with their roots firmly in the ground. In another work,
No 329 (1977), the artist actually suggests the landscape, shows the growth
beneath the surface, and then lets nature burst forth with tree-like forms,
tall and straight.
Klippel always had
the ability to work on several projects at once, so that at any one time
ideas may be explored as sculpture, drawing, collage or lithograph. For
instance, a theme parallel to his sculpture appears in the lithograph
Structures in a Landscape (1965), in which three forms, like deciduous
trees in winter, stand stark against the sky. Klippel also used this black
and white lithograph as the starting point for a series of collages that
spread over the years 196569. Collage, incorporating meticulously
cut-up catalogues of machine parts, was a technique much favored by the
artistUntitled, Machine collage (1983) shows a section through the
earth, filled with a swirling mass of forms whose latent energy magically
metamorphoses into sculptural structures above ground.
247 Metal Construction, 196569.
Brazed and welded steel, found objects, and wood, 198 x 145 x
One of the most astonishing
of Klippel's collages is Philadelphia, a black and white photomontage
produced during 197879 using enlarged photographs of machinery details
originally from catalogues of industrial equipment. It is impressive not
for its huge scale, but also for its meticulous craftsmanship and the
convincing strength of the dramatic composition. Whereas a geological
section through the earth would show the strata of rocks, Klippel reveals
the immense power of our industrial age, machines emerging, occupying,
and overwhelming the earth. The artist may have had the expressed wish
to harmonize the forces of nature and industry, but in Philadelphia the
machine supplants nature. It is a world devoid of human beings, with no
signs of habitation, not even a suggestion of productive labor or a hint
of the good life in an age of consumerism. Klippel, however, makes no
judgments of our industrial society; he doesn't push a political line
of social criticism and he seems unaware of threats to the environment.
Possibly the only
exception to this observation is a very late work, No 981 Diorama, partly
a new construction from 2001 and partly a recycling of previous sculptures
from as early as 1968. Here the earth is torn asunder and the objects
that grow from the soil lean and bend, some appear to topple. It is one
of the few works by Klippel that has a pessimistic feeling, for generally
speaking the organic sense of growth that characterizes his work imparts
a sense of optimism. Unlike the Italian Futurists he doesn't glorify speed
and the energy of the machine age, rather he removes the machine from
its function and place in society and uses its parts as purely abstract
shapes and forms.
Klippel uses color
in the same entirely abstract manner. Sometimes he may put a pale wash
of gray-blue in the sky or green-gray on the landscape, but mainly color
has its own independent existence. Just as his sculptural materials and
techniques are of the 20th century, so too is his use of colorhe
uses the synthetic colors of contemporary dyes, not the black of charcoal,
ochres from the earth, or dyes from plants. His colors are just as much
of the present as his machine parts. The components of his delightful
No 363, Ninety three constructions of coloured paper are set out in ordered
rows on a specially built table. Each of the objects is frontal and remarkably
small, yet the general impression is of joyous, vibrant color. The piece
reveals Klippel's ability to work on a very small scale and his persistence
in following an idea relentlessly, even obsessively. The sheer repetition
of 93 small shapes could have resulted in a failed exercise in design,
but Klippel demonstrates his vital creativity: the spectator is captivated
by the colorful exuberance.
Fifteen years later,
in 1995, he produced another group of works on a very small scale, Nos
10371126, 87 polychromed tin sculptures, some painted by the artist
and others painted by his friend and fellow sculptor, Rosemary Madigan.
These adventurous little doodles, light-hearted explorations of sculptural
ideas, were used on the brightly colored cover of the catalogue of the
exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Walesthere couldn't have
been a better way to highlight his phenomenal creativity and his endless
flow of ideas.
Klippel's work varied
from the profound and awe inspiring to the whimsical and playful. From
an early stage he was fascinated by children's plastic toys, including
model kits and the small surprises found in cereal boxes. No 228 Plastic
Construction (1967) was built from a variety of plastic parts carefully
assembled before being cast in bronze. Here, the plastic bits and pieces
lose their identity, but the whole structure retains the fragility and
carefree character of a child's ephemeral construction. No 853, from about
the same time, seems to be a collection of toy trumpets, suggesting the
joyous noise of a children's birthday party.
Eighty-seven small polychromed tin
by Robert Kippel and Rosemary Madigan
(detail), dimensions variable (315 cm. high).
Another work of a
totally different scale is No 800 (1989), a wood assemblage stretching
140 cm. long, in which the basic structure takes the form of a children's
slide. Forms clamber up the steep incline of the ladder and then tumble
headlong down the long diagonal. It has all the casual chaos of children
at play, yet the simple underlying composition holds all the elements
together. This is one of over 150 assemblages that Klippel built in the
eight years from the mid-1980s to the early 1990shis last great
works. They originated as far back as 1964 when sculptor/painter Colin
Lancely found a vast cache of abandoned wooden patterns in a disused foundry.
He immediately used some in his own work, but Klippel placed his selection
in storage. In early 1980, the director of the National Gallery of Australia,
Canberra, tried to encourage Klippel to produce a very large outdoor piece
for the museum's collection; for various reasons the project was abandoned,
but during the discussions the artist remembered the almost forgotten
foundry patterns. A year later he assembled eight structures, which were
cast in bronze and then imaginatively set in a secluded pool of water
framed by Australian casurina trees in the sculpture garden of the National
Gallery. The relationship of the vertical sculptures, the soft foliage
of the trees, and the sheet of water was ideal, and the scale was right.
Once Klippel started
assembling these patterns, which consisted of a wonderfully diverse range
of formsthe pace of experimentation gathered momentum. He established
a large additional workshop in Roselle, a Sydney suburb, and employed
several assistants to help with the often awkward and arduous manipulation
of the forms. He still continued to rely on spontaneous, intuitive procedures
for working, but the sheer difficulty of screwing, nailing, and waiting
for glue to set with large and sometimes heavy patterns meant that he
couldn't simply proceed with one sculpturehe sometimes was working
on 10 or 12 at a time. It was intuition tempered by reflection. Nevertheless,
he achieved an informal and casual composition of the forms and also used
the distinctive original colors of the patterns (black, gray, red, yellow,
and orange) to great effect. A work such as 706 The Beacon (1988) has
a very strong presence, towering above the spectator, the smaller colored
forms encased within the black structure, capped with a directional triangular
shape. While The Beacon is frontal and has a simple direct composition,
other constructions such as No 714 Wooden prototype for the Adelaide Plaza
have a more complex arrangement. A series of verticals of varying heights
give stability, while other shapes such as circles and diagonal straight
lines cut across the basic structure and, along with the almost random
color of the patterns, establish a lively and unexpected arrangement.
The final work for
Adelaide, cast in bronze and placed in an outdoor setting, is somewhat
dwarfed by the surrounding environment, and one's view is distracted by
stairways and unnecessary patterns on the pavement. Klippel was at his
best on a small to moderate scale, with sculptures suitable for domestic
settingeven his biggest assemblages of the wooden patterns are best
seen as indoor gallery pieces. Casting the unique wooden sculptures in
bronze gave permanency, allowed the works to be located outside, and also
enabled the artist to cast in editionsa valuable and continuing
source of income. For an artist who had always used color in his three-
and two-dimensional work, it was strange that Klippel allowed the foundry
to patinate all his bronzes in a uniform dark brown, never exploring the
possibilities of blue, black, green, or yellow. In bronze, the works become
commanding silhouettes, but the original wooden patterns have far greater
There is a great
diversity of composition among Klippel's final works. Some, such as No
651, are similar to his earlier studies of sculpture in the landscape,
with a horizontal suggestion of the horizon and a vertical accent like
the growth of trees. Others, such as No 712 The train, are casually constructed
of 30 or more patterns strung together in an irregular line, while No
716 is a collection of parts within box-like containers. Unlike many artists
who become repetitious with age, Klippel continued to experiment and surprise
until the end of his career. Late in his life he showed that he was willing
to take risks, deliberately seeking a freer and more adventurous composition
by making collages of roughly torn paper or unexpectedly combining collage
with bold brushstrokes of polymer paint. To increase the element of chance
and unpredictability he had other people randomly paint the already colorful
patterns, then he found ways of assembling them.
at the Art Gallery of New South Wales undoubtedly met international standards
and could have been shown in any major museum, yet once again Australia's
comparative isolation, the difficulties and the cost of transport, has
meant that this superb exhibition was only shown at one location. James
Gleeson, the artist's friend since their early days together in London,
published an extremely well-researched book on Klippel in 1983, and this,
along with Deborah Edward's excellently written and copiously illustrated
exhibition catalogue, allows Klippel's work to be seen overseas. Hopefully
this significant artist will eventually be better known outside the limits
of his own country.
While typing this
article, I found myself comparing Klippel's work with the music of Johann
Sebastian Bach. Both of these artists made order out of the chaos around
us, an order to which we can relate, an order that implies a structure,
even a purpose, to life. In spite of the high regard that we now have
for Bach's music, it is interesting to note that he wasn't an innovator.
In fact, his sons considered his compositions old fashioned and outmoded.
His undoubted claim to fame is based on his ability to use the musical
forms of his day and bring them to a sublime peak of expressive refinement.
In this respect, there is a parallel with Robert Klippel. Unlike Braque
and Picasso who introduced the world to Cubism or Duchamp who made the
readymade into art, Klippel didn't invent new techniques or new ways of
seeing the world. He wasn't the first to use junk and the discarded materials
of the 20th century, he wasn't the first to use collage or assemblage
as a method of working, but he did produce sculptures and collages of
an extraordinary level of refinement. And he had an apparently endless
flow of creative ideas and an impeccable, intuitive sense of order. Bach's
music was almost ignored for over 100 years. I hope the works of Robert
Klippel don't suffer the same fate.
1 Interview with Deborah Edwards, March 14, 2000.
2 Robert Klippel, Sculpture notes, notebook 194550.
4 Klippel began to number rather than name his sculptures.
5 Laurie Thomas, "Cogs and slats in a timeless Klippel" The
Australian, February 18, 1969.