Robert Klip­pel
Bronze Sculp­tures

4th April – 5th February 2009
Anna Schwartz Gallery Carriageworks

Inves­ti­ga­tions beyond form: The art of Robert Klippel

Klip­pel, on arriv­ing in Lon­don, sought out Paolozzi’s advice. Paolozzi’s rec­om­men­da­tion was curi­ous per­haps, giv­en that he had found his own time at the Slade, from 1944 – 47, unsat­is­fac­to­ry. Through him Klip­pel also met pro­gres­sive sculp­tor William Turn­bull, with whom he dis­cussed abstrac­tion, and who he re-met in Paris… [1]

Paolozzi, who was always of inter­est to Klip­pel, had left for Paris in 1947. The sculp­tures he showed at the May­or Gallery before leav­ing, which Klip­pel saw, were in their dis­tor­tions and debt to Picas­so dis­tinct­ly removed from the Hen­ry Moore inspired empha­sis on smooth fin­ish­ing and crafts­man­ship evi­dent else­where in Lon­don. In Paris he too became inter­est­ed in Duchamp, in Jean Dubuffet’s prim­i­tivist draw­ings, in Paul Klee and in Alexan­der Calder. Paolozzi would lat­er cre­ate a series of sculp­tures using junk­yard mate­ri­als in the 1950s, … [2]

For­ma­tive for the art of Robert Klip­pel was his three-year sojourn in Europe from 1947. In Lon­don, the artist Eduar­do Paolozzi rec­om­mend­ed Klip­pel study at the Slade School, how­ev­er Klip­pel with­drew after find­ing the teach­ing focused on fig­u­ra­tive art, pre­fer­ring to fre­quent the Nat­ur­al His­to­ry and Sci­ence Muse­ums, art muse­ums and pub­lic gar­dens in his search for a path­way to non-rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al and con­struct­ed art.

I men­tion this episode nei­ther as a per­son­al intro­duc­tion to Robert Klip­pel, who I regret­tably nev­er met, nor as the pre­am­ble to a bio­graph­i­cal per­spec­tive on this pro­lif­ic and tal­ent­ed artist but as an indi­ca­tion of the sub­stan­tial and well-researched schol­ar­ship that has been con­duct­ed on Klippel’s art. The source of the quotes above, Deb­o­rah Edwards thor­ough and exten­sive sur­vey at the Art Gallery of New South Wales remains acces­si­ble in pub­li­ca­tion. [3] Oth­er ref­er­ences will be writ­ten, but for now we are the lucky recip­i­ents of detailed overviews by writ­ers includ­ing Edwards, Tim Fish­er and James Glee­son, whose texts are attend­ed by an invit­ing list of foot­notes which trig­ger clues for fur­ther explo­ration of Klippel’s prac­tice. [4]

The cog­wheel and the bud’ [5]

Klip­pel was pro­fi­cient in simul­ta­ne­ous­ly com­bin­ing mul­ti­ple yet con­trast­ing ideas and means. He believed in an art that was a con­junc­tion of nature and the man­made world (miss­ing at the Slade), and had the abil­i­ty to cre­ate mul­ti­ple works at the one time, as well as to move between dis­tinct art media. He attrib­uted being able to work on twen­ty to forty pieces at once to his dis­ci­pline, mem­o­ry for forms and the ben­e­fit of work­ing in a house-cum-stu­dio at Birch­grove, con­tain­ing an exten­sive quan­ti­ty of mate­ri­als. [6]

Sculp­ture for Klip­pel was not an inde­pen­dent genre. Draw­ings, col­lages and prints oper­at­ed equal­ly as educa­tive tools and expres­sive means. Sin­gu­lar works and series in all media were inves­ti­ga­tions of vari­a­tions on a theme, evinc­ing a mind able to trans­form ideas across two and three dimen­sions, at one moment invent­ing forms in one media and oth­er times fore­shad­ow­ing in one media devel­op­ments of work in another.

The objec­tive of seek­ing a shared vocab­u­lary between nature and man set Klip­pel on a life­long inves­ti­ga­tion of visu­al, for­mal and con­cep­tu­al rela­tions. Exhi­bi­tions in Syd­ney from 1951 indi­cat­ed the mat­u­ra­tion of his work: fan­tas­ti­cal bio­mor­phic draw­ings, assem­blages of paint­ed wood and new loop­ing or con­struc­tive met­al sculp­tures. They sig­nal Klippel’s long stand­ing inves­ti­ga­tion and absorp­tion of artis­tic tra­di­tions rel­e­vant to an art for con­tem­po­rary times: sur­re­al­ist con­junc­tions of con­trast­ing forms, assem­blage and the ratio­nal aes­thet­ics of Con­struc­tivism, and more specif­i­cal­ly, aspects of the work and the approach­es of liv­ing and his­tor­i­cal artists includ­ing Alexan­der Calder, Juan Miro, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Ashile Gorky, Pablo Picas­so, Nicholas de Stael, Alber­to Gia­comet­ti, David Smith, Richard Stankiewicz, William Turn­bull and Eduar­do Paolozzi to list only a few indi­cat­ed to be of long stand­ing inter­est in the Klip­pel biogra­phies and foot­notes mentioned.

At the same time, the search for some­thing more’ beyond the con­ven­tions of art saw Klip­pel edu­cate him­self in areas of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge such as micro­bi­ol­o­gy, and aspects of phys­i­cal and engi­neer­ing sci­ence. By the 1960s, Klip­pel was at the fore­front of the devel­op­ment of sculp­ture in Aus­tralia. Like his Aus­tralian peers, who includ­ed Clement Mead­more before he left the coun­try in 1963, and Inge King, Clif­ford Last and Lenton Parr (but with­out the sup­port these lat­ter artists offered each oth­er in Mel­bourne), Klip­pel became an irre­press­ible cre­ator of sculp­ture in an envi­ron­ment that did lit­tle to fos­ter its development.

Klippel’s sin­gu­lar pur­suit of a syn­the­sis of instinc­tive and indus­tri­al forms was nev­er mimet­ic, but extend­ed across a vast styl­is­tic range, from the min­i­mal and mono­chrome to mon­u­men­tal. The prod­uct of an inven­tive ener­gy, his sculp­tures in their indi­vid­u­al­i­ty and sophis­ti­cat­ed for­mal rela­tion­ships evoked dis­crete ref­er­ences: archi­tec­tur­al, machinic, totemic, anthro­po­mor­phic, botan­i­cal and sen­su­al. As Edwards recent­ly wrote His Neo-Pla­ton­ic sense of an under­ly­ing order and his vital­ist appre­hen­sion of life-ener­gies’ per­me­at­ing all mat­ter formed a dual con­cep­tion shared by many artists of the mid twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.’ [7]

Coomaraswamy wrote: There exists a gen­er­al impres­sion that mod­ern abstract art is in some way like or relat­ed to, or even inspired” by the for­mal­i­ty of prim­i­tive art. The like­ness is alto­geth­er super­fi­cial. Our abstrac­tion is noth­ing but a man­ner­ism … the Neolith­ic for­mal­ist was not an inte­ri­or design­er but a meta­phys­i­cal man who saw life whole’, in Why exhib­it works of art? 1943 … which Klip­pel stud­ied … He also read a wide range of texts by var­i­ous philoso­phers and mys­tics over the next 15 years, includ­ing those of Indi­ol­o­gist Hein­rich Zim­mer, Sufi experts Rene Ganon, Titus Bur­ck­hard and Joseph Camp­bell, Paul Reps, Raman Maharshi, Frithjof Schuon, Mar­co Pal­lis, D.T. Suzu­ki, Lao Tzu and Carl Jung for exam­ple … [8]

T.S. Eliot, East Cok­er in Col­lect­ed Poems 1909 – 1962, 1963. [9]

A belief in the inter­pen­e­tra­tion of art and life as it was imag­ined in non-West­ern soci­eties has been char­ac­terised as symp­to­matic of Klippel’s spir­i­tu­al world­view, which extend­ed to his thor­ough inter­est in a pro­lif­er­a­tion of spir­i­tu­al and mys­ti­cal thought. Ideas on being were analysed by Klip­pel and informed his life and atti­tude toward the role of the sub-con­scious and the artist. No ele­ment of his oeu­vre was out­side the reach of this think­ing, from the com­mer­cial­ly unap­pre­ci­at­ed design prac­tice to minute col­lages made from torn tis­sue paper. At times works were more expres­sive – increas­ing­ly lyri­cal and abstract in the 1990s – and both wood­en and met­al sculp­ture and graph­ics con­vey Klippel’s abil­i­ties as a colourist.

Although com­men­ta­tors have protest­ed against read­ing nar­ra­tive or ref­er­en­tial or meta­phys­i­cal con­tent into Klippel’s prac­tice, the role of the lit­er­ary imag­i­na­tion should not be over­looked as, like many artists of his time, the writ­ing of T.S. Eliot is also not­ed as fea­tur­ing in Klippel’s inter­ests. Com­bin­ing frag­ment­ed forms and abstract­ing from process­es, Klip­pel was able to evoke the phys­i­cal and inner worlds, real and imag­i­nary realms, in works that utilised his per­son­al col­lec­tion of found and acquired materials.

… I am using discs of var­i­ous sizes with odd shapes weld­ed on. I was quite shocked when I saw all the scraps of met­al lying around the work­shop and their infi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties, rela­tion­ships I could nev­er have imag­ined. This has cer­tain­ly opened my eyes up to the world of met­al’, Robert Klip­pel, … [10]

Klip­pel inte­grat­ed found objects in his art from 1948. A series of con­struc­tivist-style col­lages com­pris­ing shapes cut from machin­ery and elec­tron­ics cat­a­logues in the mid- 1950s pre­saged his sub­se­quent met­al con­struc­tions. The tale of Col­in Lance­ley and Klip­pel reclaim­ing found wood­en pat­terns for machine parts, which Klip­pel col­lect­ed in 1964 but only began to utilise lat­er, is renown. While teach­ing in Min­neapo­lis in 1962 Klip­pel employed parts from sec­ond hand type­writer shops and junk­yards in sculp­tures, and con­tin­ued to seek out these mate­ri­als on his return to Syd­ney, stock­pil­ing indus­tri­al and every­day mate­ri­als that would pro­vide con­tin­ued inspi­ra­tion. [11]

Less wide­ly known were his sculp­tures made with plas­tics kit set parts. Klip­pel began buy­ing new kits in 1966, grad­u­al­ly deploy­ing their parts. Unin­ter­est­ed in pop art’s cel­e­bra­tion and cri­tique of con­sumer soci­ety, Klippel’s minia­ture sculp­tures – in plas­tic, cast or cam­ou­flaged in metal­lic paint – can­not avoid asso­ci­a­tions with mass repli­ca­tion. [12] Klippel’s under­stand­ing of scale in his sculp­tures allows them to deny scale, appear­ing as macro or micro accord­ing to com­po­si­tion rather than actu­al dimensions.

Klip­pel made impres­sions of hun­dreds of plas­tic parts in clay, then cast these in wax, assem­bled the wax parts and oth­er plas­tic pieces (which burnt out in the cast­ing process) onto a wax core, and had the wax assem­blage cast in bronze. [13]

New tech­nolo­gies make pos­si­ble new forms and con­tent for artists. Access to weld­ing skills for exam­ple, led to changes in the work of numer­ous sculp­tors in the late 1950s, includ­ing Klip­pel (in the Unit­ed States) and Clement Mead­more and Inge King (in Aus­tralia). These new means facil­i­tat­ed Klippel’s met­al plate and rod assem­blages, and the sub­se­quent sculp­tures of machine parts, and offered sur­face fin­ish­es rang­ing from the encrust­ed (relat­ed by crit­ics of the day to abstract expres­sion­ism and cold war fears) to the increas­ing­ly fine­ly finished.

Har­bour­ing a long-stand­ing inter­est in bronze cast­ing, Klip­pel became pro­fi­cient with its require­ments and pos­si­bil­i­ties in Min­neapo­lis in 1966 – 67, and returned to the medi­um repeat­ed­ly. Klippel’s bronzes ranged from minia­tures to large-scale pub­lic com­mis­sions includ­ing a series of eight for the Nation­al Gallery of Aus­tralia, Can­ber­ra (1981). An inven­tive num­ber of bronzes from the 1980s revis­it the forms of cer­tain of his abstract stone carv­ings of the 1940s, and are only a small part of decades of sculp­tures rich in their range of evocations.

At around this time Klip­pel also began to use a mir­ror in his con­struc­tions as a means of check­ing bal­ance from every angle. [14]

In rela­tion to the claim for Klip­pel seri­ous­ly test­ing the lim­its of phys­i­cal abil­i­ty, the artist spent so much time over his work desk on one col­lage that he sub­se­quent­ly under­went phys­io­ther­a­py for sev­er­al months. [15]

It is dif­fi­cult today to imag­ine the inno­va­tion and crafts­man­ship in Klippel’s sculp­ture meet­ing an unre­cep­tive pub­lic, as it did on his return to Aus­tralia from Europe in 1951.16 His explorato­ry and con­sis­tent­ly non-rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al prac­tice has become a hall­mark of Aus­tralian art, cre­at­ing a dia­logue with art his­to­ry and the con­di­tions and envi­ron­ment of his century.

Despite the indus­tri­al world’s life­long rel­e­vance for Klip­pel and his use of ser­i­al process­es such as cast­ing, he was unswerv­ing in the impor­tance of the role of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty and the body in his art. His met­al and cast sculp­tures reveal hand impres­sions and man­u­al fin­ish­ing, are often giv­en an all-over coloura­tion, extend­ing to the range of tones achieved in bronze pati­na­tion. Fore­cast­ing that the art of the future would be made from new mate­ri­als, many of his sculp­tures are in one sense reli­quar­ies and shrines to a fad­ing indus­tri­al past, while in anoth­er they antic­i­pate yet to be realised objects.

Many con­tem­po­rary artists employ art as a form of cri­tique, and oth­ers aim to posi­tion their art with­in the social sphere. Klip­pel sought to incor­po­rate a social and cul­tur­al con­text in his prac­tice that could act as a con­duit toward an expe­ri­ence of exis­tence itself. In the neolib­er­al glob­al cap­i­tal­ist world in which artists fash­ion strate­gies to enable a polit­i­cal­ly rel­e­vant prac­tice, Robert Klippel’s deter­mi­na­tion to estab­lish an art which could syn­the­sise the uneasy or unimag­ined rela­tion­ships of his day offers a mod­el for those who wish their art to remain dis­crete from the com­mer­cial machine yet respond to it on their own terms.

Zara Stan­hope

[1.] Deb­o­rah Edwards, Robert Klip­pel, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Syd­ney, 2002, p. 41.

[2.] ibid., p. 42.

[3.] Deb­o­rah Edwards curat­ed the exhi­bi­tion Robert Klip­pel at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (9 August – 13 Octo­ber 2002) and authored the asso­ci­at­ed exten­sive cat­a­logue ref­er­enced above and from which most of the foot­notes quot­ed in this essay are derived.

[4.] Tim Fish­er, Robert Klip­pel, Nation­al Gallery of Aus­tralia, Can­ber­ra, 1993 and James Glee­son, Robert Klip­pel, Bay Books, Syd­ney, 1983.

[5.] Deb­o­rah Edwards, op.cit., p. 145.

[6.] Make it new: a pro­file of the sculp­tor Robert Klip­pel’, doc­u­men­tary video pro­duced by SBS is asso­ci­a­tion with Don Feath­er­stone Pro­duc­tions, direct­ed by Don Feath­er­stone, 1992.

[7.] Deb­o­rah Edwards in Klippel/​Klip­pel : Opus 2008, Nation­al Gallery of Vic­to­ria, Mel­bourne 2008, p. 103.

[8.] Deb­o­rah Edwards, Robert Klip­pel, op.cit., p. 81.

[9.] ibid., p. 225.

[10.] ibid, p. 112.

[11.] Tim Fish­er, op.cit., p. 9.

[12.] See Klippel/​Klip­pel : Opus 2008, op.cit.

[13.] Deb­o­rah Edwards, op.cit., p. 112.

[14.] ibid., p. 112.

[15.] ibid., p. 145.

[16.] ibid., foot­note 5., p. 81.


Robert Klip­pel

Bronze Sculp­tures, 2009
instal­la­tion view, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Carriageworks
Pho­to: Paul Green

Robert Klip­pel

Bronze Sculp­tures, 2009
instal­la­tion view, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Carriageworks
Pho­to: Paul Green