|When Robert Klippel died in Sydney on his 81st birthday on 19 June last year, the next day’s headlines acclaimed his artistic achievements – ‘Australia’s greatest sculptor’, ‘a sculptor with iconic status’. As early as the 1960s, Robert Hughes was claiming Klippel as an outstanding figure of Australian art and one of few sculptors worthy of international attention.|
While Klippel’s sculpture is extolled, he was a man who eschewed publicity, and to the public his name, unlike those of other major Australian art figures such as Sidney Nolan, Brett Whiteley and Arthur Boyd amongst others, may not be familiar.
With a career spanning 60 years of prodigious creativity, Robert Klippel worked closely with the Gallery’s curator of Australian art, Deborah Edwards, to present this first full-scale retrospective of his life’s work.
“Robert Klippel was Australia's greatest sculptor and arguably one of the most significant sculptors of his generation internationally. Klippel's particular vision, inspired by the intricacies and the profusion of our natural and man-made environments and by his quest for a spiritually relevant form, stands alone in the history of Australian art,” said Deborah Edwards.
Comprising more than 250 pieces, the exhibition encompasses Klippel’s development from figurative sculpture into abstraction, from Surrealist wood carvings to the extraordinary junk assemblages of the 1960s and 1990s. The diversity of junk materials in Klippel’s art – wood, stone, plastic toy kits, wooden pattern parts, typewriter machinery, industrial piping and machine parts – as well as bronze, silver, oils, photography, collage and paper; and the great range in scale of his work, from intimate whimsical structures in metal to the large wooden assemblages of the 1980s, are all incorporated in the exhibition.
Robert Klippel was a fossicker, and his waterfront home in Balmain a cornucopia of industrial discards. These he pondered and re-assembled into some of the most exciting works of art ever produced in this country. He created an amazing number of collages and works on paper, more than 5,000 – outlines and inspirations for his sculpture – “far too many to ever be realised into sculptures, but wonderful pictorial studies in their own right,” said Deborah Edwards.
To accompany the exhibition, the Art Gallery of New South Wales is publishing a comprehensive monograph and a CD ROM catalogue raisonne. This CD ROM catalogue raisonne is the first produced on an Australian artist, and provides detailed information on more than 1,200 of Klippel’s sculptures.
“Robert Klippel’s indefatigable instinct to make things embraced the realms of fantasy, of imagination and whimsy, but at the same time there is a sturdy reality in all thos reawakened bits and pieces of discarded industry and long lost purpose. These works of surprising contemplation and fascinating intrigue are, for me, perfect testaments to the contribution of Robert Klippel, that independent, somewhat solitary but relentlessly creative spirit.”
Director, Art Gallery of New South Wales
ROBERT KLIPPEL: A brief biography
Robert Klippel was born in 1920. At the age of six he made his first model ship after being taken on a ferry ride on Sydney Harbour. Model making became a passion – he was employed to make models of planes while he was serving in the Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships at the Gunnery Instruction Centre during World War II. While working at the Centre he was able to attend evening classes at East Sydney Technical College and, after his discharge, was able to attend for a full year.
His parents’ business was successful and with their support, he left Australia for the Slade College in London – a 6 month experience which did not satisfy his need for freedom of expression. However, in London he met the Australian painter and art critic, James Gleeson, with whom he formed a life-long friendship. In November 1948 Klippel, Gleeson and the young Lucian Freud exhibited together in London. Andre Breton, the originator of Surrealism, arranged for Klippel’s work to be exhibited in Paris the following year. After 18 months in Paris, Klippel returned to Australia.
Australia was culturally dismal in the 1950s, and Klippel's first sculptural work was not sold in this country until 1956. Nor could the artist achieve any commercial success in a short-lived career as an industrial designer. In 1957 he set sail for America, where he remained until 1963, teaching sculpture at the Minneapolis School of Art from 1958-1962. Living in New York in 1957 (and again in 1962-63) Klippel became attuned to the paintings and sculptures of the 'New York' school, and produced his first junk assemblages in 1960, using various parts and sections from old machinery (such as typewriters and cash registers). With these works he subsequently established his mature reputation as a radical new voice in Australian art, after he returned to Sydney in mid-1963.
Living in a huge old house in Birchgrove from 1968, Klippel consolidated his vision and also became, by the 1970s, one of the country's most important collagists. In decades during the 1970s and 80s, when the traditional distinctions between sculpture and architecture, design, photography, performance and painting were frequently presented as obsolete, Klippel's belief in his sculpture was a commitment to the traditional, imaginative concerns of his art. He remained committed to the idea of sculpture as abstract, as occupying sculptural space, and as sustaining in ways beyond any literary or narrative function. In the 1980s he completed a series of spectacular small bronzes, as well as a large number of monumental wooden assemblages, made from the pattern-parts of early twentieth century maritime machinery.
Klippel's last decades proved extremely prolific. Working with wood, metals, plastics, junk, machinery parts, oils, watercolours and paper, and utilising the techniques of casting, assemblage, painting and collage, he had completed over 1,200 sculptures by the end of the 1990s. His independence of thought continued to mark his creative life, as did the exceptional fertility and suppleness of his sculptural imagination, until his death, during his last major exhibition of work, in June 2001.
|On view:||Friday 9 August to Sunday 13 October 2002|
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road, Sydney
(02) 9225 1744 or recorded information
(02) 9225 1790
|Hours:||10am to 5pm 7 days a week|
(closed Christmas Day and Easter Friday)
|Admission:||Free of charge|
|Media Information and Interviews:||Jan Batten|
telephone 61 2 9225 1791
images available on request
Robert Klippel Wooden prototype for Adelaide Plaza bronze, No. 714, 1988 wood assemblage, 300 x 350 x 135cmCollection Art Gallery of New South Wales. Purchased 1989 copyright Estate of Robert Klippel