Photography by Geoffrey Boccalatte
“…there is no such thing as abstract act. It is based on something – conscious or unconscious. Every carving is a formalisation. One can go to the extreme degree of formalisation – it can’t be abstract.” (Robert Klippel)
Robert Klippel was Australia’s foremost sculptor of the twentieth century. Always resistant to labels, his work has elements of surrealism, constructivism and primitivism without ever confining himself dogmatically to one particular movement. He made sculptures and assemblages from wood, metal, stone and found objects, as well as a large body of works on paper – collages, watercolours and drawings.
From 1939, Klippel served for five years in the Royal Australian Navy aboard a minesweeper in the Middle East. In 1944, he returned to Australia and studied sculpture under Lyndon Dadswell at East Sydney Technical College, where he imbued his model making with a spiritual searching for a “primitive” or “essential” form. His study of carving and modeling was accompanied by an attention to draughtsmanship, which even at an early stage heralded the genius of his later drawings.
From Sydney, Klippel moved to London. Displays of Mesoamerican and African sculpture, and to some extent the work of British sculptor Henry Moore, inspired a move towards primitivism and, his final destination, abstraction. Developing from his interest in Hindu and Indian sculpture, he felt a renewed spiritual component in his art, a sort of Jungian quest for oneness in all things. His interest in the unconscious brought him close to the cubists, the surrealists and to Arshile Gorky, though he always rejected monikers and comparisons, saying “I never tried to be anything; it was just what I was”.
When Klippel returned to Sydney in 1951, he had already progressed to abstraction. Sculpturally, he developed open constructions – some lively wire sculptures resembling the mobiles of Alexander Calder; and other more densely concentrated mechanical bronzes. But, increasingly, he devoted his time to works on paper; drawings, watercolours and collages that began to stand as works of art in their own right, not just as preparatory sketches.
While he had used found objects in his sculptures from 1951, it was in 1960, after moving to the United States, that he began making sculptures from metallic junk. While owing a conceptual debt to Marcel Duchamp, Klippel’s use of metal junk had a very different meaning – not Dadaist meaninglessness but, rather, an extended vision of nature that saw industrial waste and its redemption into art as a spiritual pursuit. As Klippel famously put it, he aimed “to seek the inter-relationship between the cogwheel and the bud”.
In 1968, Klippel moved with his family to a home in Birchgrove in Sydney where he arranged the home so as “to have a room for each activity, and work on something different in each” – one for drawing, one for collage, and one for each species of sculpture, metal, wood, clay and plastic. In his late oeuvre, Klippel’s work migrated to extremes of scale: large bronze lost-wax sculptures, wood assemblages and collages that directly placed his sculptures within the environment; and, in a return to his boyhood hobby, miniatures made of painted tin, wire, metal and plastic that distilled his sculptural practice into smaller objects.
For all the diversity of scale and medium within Klippel’s work, there is a consistency in practice and form that is distinct and unmistakable, a stubborn and uncompromising aesthetic that finds harmony between the natural and industrial worlds. It is this quality that has made his work extensively represented in every major gallery across Australia. For his service to the arts and art education, he was awarded the Order of Australia in 1988. He exhibited up until his death in 2001, with a major retrospective held in his memory the following year.