Menzies Art Brands

42. ROBERT KLIPPEL, Opus 800


Perhaps it was the easing effects of train travel or simply a mesmeric response to a flickering screen of images flashed through a carriage window. Whatever the case, Robert Klippel’s grasp of the aesthetic sources of contemporary sculpture changed forever on 1 April 1948 during a train trip in England.1 He was returning to London from Cornwall and during the 400 kilometres journey he noted:

the variety of “constructional” elements which are before our eyes … signals, towers, telegraph poles, chimneys, cranes, masts, radar equipment, street lamp-posts, step ladders, water tanks, windmills, dredges, church spires, lighthouses, ventilators, etc., etc., all vertical, man-made – a relationship existing with the organic trees and men … I can’t see why an artist can’t use such exciting elements in his work – but no! – practically everybody says that the figure is the only thing for sculpture. It is incredible! 2 

This penetrating observation came suddenly, but it had a long gestation. Klippel had been privately musing along these lines for more than two years. His many personal notes and items of documentary evidence indicate that his artistic insight formed its roots during the mid-Forties in central Sydney and found its realisation during the late-Forties in central London. 

Klippel was honorably discharged from his Wartime duties as an able seaman in the Royal Australian Navy on 22 February 1946. Soon after, he enrolled to study art at the East Sydney Technical College under the provisions of the Australian Government’s Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. What the twenty-six year old Klippel absorbed from the tuition at “The Tech”, as it was called, and took from the cultural crucible that was Sydney in the Forties was the then generally unconventional conviction that art making was an intellectual act. 

That is, the seemingly outlandish idea that artistic practice was an act of the mind. A creative mind that reflectively searched beyond simply seeing and reflecting Nature’s images. In early 1946, something suddenly “just clicked” (an expression that Klippel was later fond of using) and the dyadic interaction between art and the intellect must have struck him as being brazenly radical and also strangely familiar, in that it faintly echoed Sydney Technical College’s Latin motto of 1891: “manu et mente” (“hand and mind” or “doing and thinking”). 

In Klippel’s mind, a new ideational mode had been generated – an inventing of form and an investing of meaning - it was a mode that he was to use for the rest of his life.

For Klippel, the fundamental idea was that his sculpture should be constructional. He had in mind a type of connection between literature, which he equated with meaning, and art, which he equated with making, that linked arms in practice to make three-dimensional compositions. Put in simple terms, he believed that sculpture should deal with the relationship of shapes in the same way as the writer of literature deals with the relationship of words – that is, sculpture as a type of language of shape. 

He incrementally developed what he called a “shape alphabet” – a compendium of basic form elements – which he used to create three-dimensionally arranged constructions that he thought of as sculptural entities. This observation is made more clear if one considers the analogous processes of a poet. In poetry, elements that we call words are carefully arranged into complete constructions that we call poems. Much the same could be said about notes and music. In sculpture, poetry and music much depends upon an arrangement of component elements.

For Klippel, the initial idea for a sculpture always came from the various things of the observable world. He never created purely abstract works – for him sculpture was the embodiment of a “thing” rather than the embodiment of an idea. What Klippel was most interested in was a discerning type of contemplative rumination on the things in the world. One had to reflect upon rather than to reflect. To him the world is full of shapes, just as for a poet the world is full of words and for a music composer the world brims with sound. Everything comes from somewhere and it is that somewhere that remains and is recognised by viewers – this is why his sculptures bear some echo of actuality.

Interestingly, Klippel never thought of people as viewers of his work, but also considered them to be “spectators” or “participants” who “entered” into the world of his compositions, just as one “enters” into music or a good novel.

With all these observations in mind, Klippel’s bronze sculpture Opus 800 of 1989 was more than likely suggested by watching children playing on a playground slide. There the angles and flow of the shapes of children suggested a composition that contained varied forms and colours in a type of suspended animation. The sculpture’s downward play of forms suggest as much, and its triangular tumble of varied shapes echo as much. 

The original version of the present sculpture was created from coloured wooden casting mould patterns that Klippel had collected some time earlier. The original wooden sculpture, of the same title, was shown at the Klippel exhibition at the renowned Galerie Gmurzynska in Zürich, Switzerland in June 2013. There the sculpture held a central place amongst about twenty works in the garden of the famous Baur au Lac Hotel. Significantly, this wooden work is recorded in notes in the Klippel Archive in Sydney and more significantly the note has the annotation “bronze” with a small drawing of its triangular form. The Archive note also contains annotations that some of his works are “better in bronze” indicating that the artist himself considered the bronze versions of his sculptures to be contemporaneous alternative versions of his sculptures - alternatives that could withstand being placed outdoors without suffering damage from the elements. 

In other words, Klippel’s bronze Opus 800 is an outdoor version of the wooden original and was condoned and commissioned by the artist himself.

Klippel’s large bronze sculpture Opus 800 is a dynamic and almost “playful” constructed arrangement of semi-abstracted forms. It shows a slanted element that forms a right-angled triangle with a slightly raised rectangular base. Within this triangle is positioned a hollow circular form that not only supports its longer edge, but also acts as a visual foil to an inner void. These three geometrical figures – the triangle, rectangle and circle – form the compositional core of the sculpture. On the upper sides of the triangle lie a carefully arranged scatter of abstracted segmented components, all of which are made from triangular, rectangular and circular forms. Considered in these ways, Klippel’s large bronze is a visual “concerto” of three parts with elements that set up an optically attuned composition of interposed elementary shapes.

James Mollison AO, the founding Director of the National Gallery of Australia, always thought of Klippel as the most extraordinary manipulator of three-dimensional form he had ever seen. 3 Ken Scarlett, the author and respected Australian sculpture scholar, considers Klippel to be Australia’s greatest sculptor. 4


1. Robert Edward Klippel (19 June 1920, Sydney - 19 June 2001, Sydney). An extensive illustrated biography of Robert Klippel is available in Edwards, D., Robert Klippel, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2002, pp. 240-245. A Klippel Bibliography and an Exhibitions Listing compiled by Steven Miller are available on pp. 259-265. 

2. Robert Klippel, 1 April 1948, cited in Gleeson, James, Robert Klippel, Bay Books, Sydney, 1983, p. 45.

3. James Mollison AO - interview with the author, 24 September 2013, Melbourne

4. Scarlett, K., “Robert Klippel: Australia’s Greatest Sculptor”, Sculpture, vol. 23, no. 3, April, 2004.


Edwards, D., Robert Klippel: Large Wood Sculptures and Collages, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, 1995.

Edwards, D., Robert Klippel, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2002

Gleeson, J., Robert Klippel, Bay Books, Sydney, 1983 (illustrated p.326)

Hughes, R., “Art in Vogue. Robert Hughes Writes on Robert Klippel”, Vogue Australia, Sydney, November-December, 1963

Hughes, R., “Robert Klippel, Art and Australia, vol. 2, no. 1, Sydney, May, 1964

Lynn, E., “When Whimsy is Strangled by Scrap Metal Monumentality”, The Bulletin, Sydney, 1 March, 1969

Scarlett, K., Australian Sculptors, Nelson, Melbourne, 1980

Scarlett, K., “Robert Klippel: Australia’s Greatest Sculptor”, Sculpture, vol. 23, no. 3, April, 2004.

Wach, K., Robert Klippel: The American and European Years, Galerie Gmurzynska, Zürich, 2013

Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.
Emeritus Principal Research Fellow and Head,
School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne

Menzies Art Brands Note:
Dr. Ken Wach wrote the catalogue for the exhibition Robert Klippel: The American and European Years at Galerie Gmurzynska in Zürich in June 2013 – the first Klippel exhibition in Europe for sixty-three years. He was also flown over to give an address at the exhibition opening at the Baur au Lac Hotel. The Robert Klippel Estate is internationally represented by Galerie Gmurzynska in Zürich.

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