It’s hard to believe it’s been 18 years since Bob Klippel died, and 17 years since his definitive retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW. At the time it was commonplace to hear Klippel (1920-2001) described as “Australia’s greatest sculptor” – a title that generated a good deal of grumbling and dissent among his peers. Like most hyperbolic statements, to declare someone to be “the greatest” is an unfalsifiable claim. We may measure an artist’s worth by his or her auction prices, or the quantity of works in public collections, but it’s impossible to turn aesthetic judgements into stone cold facts.
Two generations have grown up since Klippel departed the planet, and it’s high time to take another look at his legacy. The opportunity has been provided by the TarraWarra Museum of Art, in the Yarra Valley. This private museum, owned by the Besen family, has initiated a succession of important shows of Sydney artists. Two years ago TarraWarra hosted a retrospective of sculptor, Bronwyn Oliver, when no venue in her home town would commit to the show.
Assembled – The Art of Robert Klippel has been put together by Kirsty Grant, former Curator of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Victoria. While not on the same scale as the AGNSW retrospective, curated by Deborah Edwards, the exhibition touches on all aspects of Klippel’s voluminous output, from early biomorphic carvings to welded junk sculptures, to the large-scale wooden pieces he began making in the late 1980s. There is also a broad selection of the works on paper that occupied Klippel throughout his life.
Grant tells us Klippel left more than 1,200 sculptures and 5,000 drawings and collages, a formidable tally considering he only began studying art in his mid-twenties and went through a fallow period in the 1950s.
Klippel was happiest when working on numerous pieces simultaneously. Everyone who visited his house in Birchgrove was astonished by what they found: room after room had been transformed into makeshift studios in which the paper might be peeling from the walls. Dozens of collages lay on table tops in various stages of completion. Klippel would walk around like a grandmaster playing simultaneous chess games, making quick adjustments here and there. It was a study in obsessive-compulsive creativity.
Although he liked to talk about a language or vocabulary of forms, and filled many notebooks with drawings and notations made in museums, Klippel was the most intuitive of artists. He may have methodically recorded an encyclopaedic range of forms, but he set about using them in a manner that owed more to the unconscious than to rational calculation. From the time of his early encounters with the Surrealists in Paris in 1949, he became a sculptor who was willing to allow his works to blossom like plants, with no overarching plan.
Those early sculptures such as No.39 Scherzo and No. 38 Child’s God (both 1948), are elegant biomorphic carvings that could pass for tribal fetish objects. When he began to make assemblages by welding together fragments of old adding machines and typewriters, Klippel said: “I just see them as shapes… I don’t see any meaning in where it has come from… I’m not trying to make any comment at all.”
On the other hand, his long-term dealer, Geoffrey Legge, tells us Klippel believed art “must be about something.” He was even known to say: “There’s no such thing as abstract art.” If we try and decode these apparent contradictions it brings us to the heart of Klippel’s idiosyncratic approach. Just because he wasn’t instilling any deliberate message into a work this didn’t mean it was devoid of meaning. He simply didn’t see it as his role to start speculating.
A universal sceptic, Klippel was even dubious about his own, lifelong dedication to abstract art. Perhaps he had spent all these years making something that wasn’t really abstract. Who decides what is and isn’t abstract? The artist? The viewer? The curator? The critic? All of them and none of them.
One thing that was never in doubt was Klippel’s productivity. It was almost as if he couldn’t make sculptures fast enough to satisfy his own bubbling inspiration. Many of his pieces are small-to-medium in scale but full of big ideas. In works such as Nos. 1037-1126, Eighty-seven small polychromed tin sculptures (1995), he has created an entire exhibition in miniature, using a table top as a virtual gallery. Some artists would have handed this ensemble over to a team of assistants, saying: “Scale these up for me”, but Klippel had an almost superstitious need to do everything by hand.
When he did make a larger work, such as No. 247 Metal construction (1965-68), it gives the impression of having grown organically, like an evil robot in a superhero movie. Three metallic towers balance on the tiniest of legs on a low metal table; slender machine fragments stick out like insect legs. Klippel has managed to imbue these compound metal forms with a powerful sense of arrested movement. At any minute these spindly limbs might spring to life and start whirling around dangerously.
In the late body of work that Legge, with almost religious veneration, calls “the Great Wood Sculptures”, Klippel turned to a series of wooden patterns that he had been storing since the early 1960s, when he and Colin Lanceley came upon a warehouse full of discarded models that had been used for casting machine parts.
The painted wooden components made use of colour in a way Klippel had not previously explored. Sanded back and combined into totemic configurations these sculptures had a tactile dimension quite unlike the metal junk assemblages. When translated into bronze, as with a public sculpture at Circular Quay, the sensuous aspect disappeared.
The most impressive of the wooden sculptures is No.712 The Train (1987). The components are arranged in a horizontal format, with a yellow-and-black colour scheme. Each part seems to touch the next lightly, edging behind, stepping forward, darting off at an angle. Once again there is a pronounced feeling of suspended movement. The title, which is unusually descriptive for Klippel, invites us to imagine a train with its cars bunched together on a winding track.
To see a large survey of Klippel’s work after all these years was more exhilarating than I would have suspected. The sculpture, drawings and collages revealed a unique visual intelligence constantly seeking the best way to connect disparate forms. The 3D pieces are the very antithesis of the smooth, decisive, monumental ambience of classical sculpture. Consistently spikey and experimental, never resting easily on the plinth, Klippel’s works represent nothing but themselves – and that’s more than enough.
Assembled – The Art of Robert Klippel
TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, VIC.
23 November, 2019 – 16 February, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 December, 2019