There are few in the art world who can truly be regarded as innovators.
Picasso springs to mind, as do Miro, Pollock and Warhol. The number
of Australian artists who wear the tag are even fewer, but one who
stands out in Australian art as a true innovator is Robert Klippel,
the man now regarded as this country's premier sculptor.
in 1920, Klippel came to art by a circuitous route. His family was
not artistic, but as a young boy, he had an interest in building
model ships. The exacting detail and keen eye required in model-building
undoubtedly honed his skills. He was not however inclined to an
artistic career early on, and in fact joined the Navy. He studied
sculpting at East Sydney Technical College and this training, combined
with his childhood hobby, saw him engaged by the Navy during World
War II making models of ships and aircraft.
Wooden prototype for Adelaide Plaza bronze, No. 714 (1988)
© Estate of Robert Klippel
the war however, Klippel's interest in the creative was stoked,
and he went to London to study at the Slade School of Art. While
in London, he met other expatriate Australians including the surrealist
painter James Gleeson. The
two collaborated on several works including Madame Sophie Sesostoris
(a pre-raphaelite satire) (1947/48), combining Klippel's sculpture
with Gleeson's painting. For a time, Klippel wholeheartedly embraced
the surrealist ethic, exhibiting at a major surrealist show and
meeting Andre Breton.
the 1950s however Klippel had grown apart from the surrealists and
moved to New York. There he was invigorated by the burgeoning art
scene, and particularly the rise of abstract expressionism. As with
his flirtation with the surrealists, Klippel threw himself into
the new aesthetic with vigour. His earlier interest in scientific
pursuits melded with his artistic concerns, and he began moving
away from "traditional" sculpture and into what might be termed
started joining found objects together to create sculpture, in much
the same was as a collagist creates pictures. He began incorporating
machine parts, pieces of wood and industrial piping into his works.
The result was his now-famous "junk" assemblages.
a stint teaching in Minneapolis, Klippel returned to Australia in
1963, setting up a studio in Birchgrove. He had by that time become
well-known internationally, even though he was still not widely
recognised "at home". In 1964, art critic Robert Hughes dubbed Klippel
was "one of the few Australian sculptors worthy of international
attention", a statement which cemented his reputation.
the following years, Klippel worked virtually continuously in Sydney.
He kept making his very personal art. In addition to his "junk"
assemblages, he utilised drawing, collage and photography in this
work. But he never completely abandoned "traditional" sculpture
altogether, and worked on several high profile public art commissions
around the country.
Never one to be too direct in his work, Klippel firmly believed
in the idea that art "doesn't have to say something". So many of
his works are not identified by a name, but simply by a number,
leaving the viewer to interpret what the artist is (or, for that
matter, isn't) saying with the piece.
Klippel died in Sydney in 2001, at the age of 80.
From August 9 to October 13, 2002, the Art Gallery of New South
Wales will present a major retrospective of Klippel's work, charting
his development as an artist from the 1940s to the 1990s. To accompany
the exhibition, the AGNSW will also be publishing a comprehensive
monograph and a CD ROM catalogue raisonné - the first of its kind
produced on an Australian artist - providing detailed information
on more than 1,200 of Klippel's sculptures. Entry to the exhibition