46. ROBERT KLIPPEL
Robert Klippel’s Opus 751 of 1989 is significant for at least four compelling reasons.
Firstly, Klippel’s sculptures, especially bronzes, have a deserved “hold” status among discerning collectors and it is uncommon to see them offered at public auction.
Secondly, the present work is a fine and rare example of Klippel’s post and beam “temple-gate” format works.
Thirdly, one of its editions sits in the famed company of Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Aristide Maillol (1861-1944), Henry Moore (1898-1986), Alexander Calder (1898-1976) and Mark di Suvero (born 1933) as a permanent feature in the Sculpture Garden of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
Fourthly, Klippel’s Opus 751 bronze was purchased by friends and colleagues and installed as a memorial to the ebullient and insightful Michael Lloyd (1950-1996), the Senior Curator of International Art at the National Gallery of Australia. Lloyd under two Directors, firstly James Mollison AO and later Betty Churcher AO was, in addition to many other things, largely responsible for one of the National Gallery’s most outstanding successes, namely the Surrealism: Revolution by Night exhibition of 1993. Earlier, Lloyd completed a History Major for his Bachelor of Arts degree at The University of Melbourne (winning the Felix Raab Prize for an outstanding essay) and completed his postgraduate Master of Arts Research Thesis on “The Self-Portrait in 20th Century Art” at Monash University under Professor Margaret Plant. To those who knew Lloyd, Klippel’s prominently sited Opus 751 bronze is a fitting tribute to a truly exceptional curator.
The present bronze sculpture was cast from the original painted wood assemblage of the same title in a very limited edition of six works. The casting was carried out by Peter Morley AO at the Meridian Foundry in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy in 1997. The specific forms of Klippel’s Opus 751 were most probably originally suggested by a published photograph of a large Japanese Temple Gate or the casual arrangement of various items on a mantelpiece at his studio or a friend’s house.
His original drawing for the present sculpture, in the pages of a small spiral page notebook now in the Robert Klippel Archive in Sydney and Zürich, shows a very small, almost hieroglyphic sketch, much like a shorthand note that records the gist of an idea or image grasped quickly and without premeditation. It outlines an arrangement of varied shapes lined up along a lintel that is supported by two column-like lines.
Whatever its ideational origins, the work’s confidently elevated arrangement of abstracted forms and its twin-legged structure mark the present sculpture out from his predominantly floor-based works of the time. The gravitating visual appeal of Opus 751 lies in its eye-level “gated” format – one that more obviously emphasises the blending of its raised frieze-like elements with its surrounding three-dimensional spatial volumes as though it was originally glimpsed in the flat and then almost immediately conceived as having sculptural worthiness in the round.
In terms of this transition from “in the flat to in the round” sense, Klippel’s Opus 751 is conceptually related to his bronze Opus 800 of the same year, which was sold by Menzies in September 2014 (lot 42) for $220,909 (including buyer’s premium). One sees in the constructed features of the two related works the results of a volumetric experimentation based upon height placement, transition from the two-dimensionality to three-dimensionality and an awareness of viewers’ angles of approach. Each compositional element is carefully arranged and spaced to highlight the resultant play of varied shapes and the fall of its associated shadows in the changing ambience of any future outdoor setting. Klippel’s Opus 800, created later in 1989, possesses a certain diagonal dynamism; by contrast, his earlier Opus 751 shows no such angled thrust of cascading elements – it contains no precariousness or hint of movement and its forms have a finessed architectonic stability. It is as though Klippel, in the two related sculptures, was saying different things with similar forms, just as a poet or writer might while using similar words
For Klippel, the fundamental idea was that his sculptures should be constructional. A little like a good sentence. He had in mind a type of enlivening connection between literature, which he equated with meaning, and art, which he equated with making, that linked arms in studio 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, to continue the analogy, he saw sculpture as a type of language of shape.
He incrementally developed what he called a “shape alphabet” – a personal 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 all the 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, just as in poetry and music, much depends upon the quality of the arrangement of component elements.
Importantly, 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 real “thing” rather than the embodiment of an abstract idea or of what he would have called a “non-thing”.
What Klippel was most interested in was a type of discerning contemplative rumination on the things in the everyday world in ways that led to the creation of “new” things. One had to reflect upon something, rather than to simply reflect. To him the world was full of shapes, just as for a poet the world is full of words and for a music composer the world brims with sounds
Everything comes from somewhere and it is that somewhere that always remains and is dimly recognised by viewers – this is why Klippel’s sculptures always bear some echo of actuality and why his sculptures always sit so well in so many different environments, without being directly related to them. It is instructive to think of them as being like a good book that can be read anywhere; that possesses a content that connects with everything but does not reflect its location. A well-structured and good sentence, a good paragraph and a good novel is good everywhere it’s read; so too with Klippel’s sculpture – its content inheres everywhere – in other words, it is not “topical”, not faddish and not “site-specific”. It stands apart complete in itself. It contains “thing-in-it-selfness” and, like the marvel of Opus 751, has its own “born-of-itself” innateness and possesses its own reason for being.
Robert Klippel was Australia’s most significant sculptor. He died in Sydney in 2001 on his eighty-first birthday, Tuesday 19th June, after almost sixty years of artistic output. He was a gentle and quiet man who shunned publicity and generally was not as well-known as he deserved. Nonetheless, he was deeply respected and held in very high regard by the art world, especially in Sydney. In 2002, he was the subject of a very successful retrospective, entitled Robert Klippel: A Tribute Exhibition, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Klippel had a remarkable capacity for close scrutiny. He wanted his constructions to be based upon a deep knowledge of physical form; so deep that it developed into something approaching an instinct. Making sculpture by forcing it into existence or making it consciously was not for him. Knowledge preconditioned the form, just as grammar preconditions a sentence. He always wanted his sculptural ideas and forms to come spontaneously, just as speaking comes freely when one knows a language well.
All of these inherent attributes flow through the compositionally balanced and bold, arresting visual strength of Klippel’s accomplished Opus 751 of 1989.
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. Robert Klippel is internationally represented by Galerie Gmurzynska in Zürich.
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Edwards, D., Robert Klippel, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2002.
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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.
Wach, K., “Robert Klippel: Opus 995 of 1998”, Galerie Gmurzynska, Basel Art Fair Miami, Florida, 2013.
Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.
Former Principal Research Fellow and Head, School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne