||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, by Paul Klee and by 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 one time, as well as 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 approaches of living and historical artists including Alexander Calder, Joan Miró, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Arshile Gorky, Picasso, Nicolas de Staël, Alberto Giacometti, David Smith, Richard Stankiewicz, William Turnbull and 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 leaving 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 Gagnon, Titus Burckhardt and Joseph Campbell, Paul Reps, Ramana 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 subconscious 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, 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 plastic-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 allow 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 allover 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 towards 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 grounds.
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.