Nos 1037–1126, 1995. Eighty-seven small polychromed tin sculptures painted by Robert Kippel and Rosemary Madigan (detail), dimensions variable (3–15 cm. high).

Robert Klippel: Australia’s Greatest Sculptor

“A tribute exhibition to Australia’s greatest sculptor” was the statement on the invitation to the opening of Robert Klippel’s exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. The press release from the gallery stated that “his vision stands alone in the history of Australian art” and that Klippel is “arguably one of the most important sculptors of his generation internationally.” This was not advertising hype from a commercial gallery, but the considered opinion of Deborah Edwards, the curator, and of many art critics in Australia—yet it is possible that, outside Australia, remarkably few reading this article have heard his name or know his work. In spite of numerous reviews in Australia giving high praise, I have been unable to locate any critical assessments of his sculpture by European or American writers.

This lack of overseas recognition partly results from Australia’s isolation, our distance from the centers of political power and artistic activity, but it also stemmed from the artist’s innate modesty and unwillingness to promote himself or his work. Distance and the cost of transport have been limiting factors for Australian sculptors who, until the last 10 or 15 years, barely showed their work interstate, let alone overseas. The situation is now different, with artists exhibiting in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, as well as in Europe and America.

The recent retrospective included work from Klippel’s student years in 1946 through to sculpture produced just before his death, aged 81, at the end of 2001. Filling seven galleries with 150 sculptures, paintings, drawings, and collages, it was a judiciously selected, beautifully displayed exhibition, showing only a small fraction of Klippel’s prodigious output, which is estimated at 1,300 pieces of sculpture and approximately 5,000 drawings. Yet quantity alone does not prove greatness. It was his phenomenal creativity, his overwhelming flow of ideas that made Klippel so special. His drawings and collages often contain numerous images that he lacked time to explore. As he said to Edwards, “One lifetime is not enough to do everything I want to do.”1

No 66 Metal Construction, 1955. Enamel on brazed and welded steel, 140 x 93 x49 cm.

Klippel’s beginnings, however, were not auspicious. From boyhood he had been interested in making model boats, and, toward the end of World War II, he was employed by the navy making models of aircraft to aid the recognition of planes. He was 24 before he began night classes at art school, and he only spent one year as a full-time student at East Sydney Technical College before leaving for London in 1947. London proved to be the catalyst that brought about great change—Klippel abandoned figurative images and became fascinated by Surrealism, producing some memorable images such as Entities Suspended from a Detector (1948). Partly an organic form, partly a menacing mechanical device, it hints at oppressive interrogation. A year in Paris, at a time when many Surrealists had returned after the conclusion of World War II, confirmed Klippel’s interest in the unconscious and the intuitive. His subsequent images may not have been immediately recognized as Surrealist, but his life-long method of working tempered intuitive beginnings with continuous reassessment. While in Paris, Klippel attended lectures by Krishnamurti, which strengthened a life-long interest in Eastern religion and philosophy—Buddhism, Hinduism, and Zen.

During his time in London, Klippel began a series of drawings and filled his notebooks with analytical diagrams of organic and mechanical objects—everything from screws and cogs to insects and shells, even making detailed drawings of the shapes and forms used by artists such as Henry Moore and Picasso. His interests ranged from the collection of the British Museum to the exotic plants in Kensington Gardens and catalogues of industrial machinery. As early as 1945 Klippel had written that “sculpture must be ‘revolutionized without the human form,” and he now began a series of experiments to replace the traditional role of the figure in sculpture.2 Whereas Moore had related the human figure to the forms of nature, Klippel set out on a new path, to relate the forms of nature to the shapes and forms of machinery in an industrial society. He made the statement that he wished “to seek the inter-relationship between the cogwheel and the bud.”3 It was a quest that he was to follow for the rest of his life.

Working quickly and freely, Klippel produced a great number of drawings and watercolors: explorations of two dimensional shapes, investigations of sculptural ideas, and examinations of a new attitude toward sculpture. No longer was he concerned with an external skin. Instead, he was excited by inner structures—his drawings seem to map the axis of the lines of tension within forms. This attention to the skeletal structure, combined with his fascination with organic forms, imparts an extraordinary sense of life and growth to his sculptures.

No 198 Metal Construction, 1965. Brazed and welded steel and found objects, 131.4 x 44.6 x 22.5 cm.

By the time Klippel returned to Sydney in 1950, he was committed to construction as a method of working and was producing totally abstract sculptures, which may have been appreciated by his fellow artists but did not sell well in a relatively conservative postwar society. Forced to work full-time, his production dropped to a mere 18 pieces between 1950 and 1957. But there were significant developments. He continued to produce works on paper, which are limited in size but among the best abstract expressionist paintings produced in Australia at this time. Whereas some of the paintings relied purely on fortuity, as in Untitled, Chance based drawing (1954), a typical sculpture of the time, No 66 Metal Construction (1955), shows a finely balanced opposition of diagonals, a linear structure of steel rods with small flat planes of black, white, and red.4 Color had indeed been an integral part of Klippel’s work from his early days in London and remained a basic concern for the rest of his productive career.

Klippel’s decision to go to New York in 1957 can be seen as typical of the transformation that occurred in Australia at this time. World War II and the threat of invasion by the Japanese made it very clear that we could no longer depend on Great Britain for protection and military support; we became aware of our proximity to Asia, and America became our new ally and protector. London and Paris were no longer the centers of the art world—New York now hosted the action, and it was to have a profound effect on Klippel. He saw a major retrospective of the works of David Smith at the Museum of Modern Art and became friendly with Richard Stankiewicz. Their use of industrial materials and scrap metal influenced Klippel, who was to make his own distinctive junk sculpture.

In 1958 he was invited to join the staff of the Minneapolis School of Art, a position he held until 1962. London and Paris had seen the change from carving to construction, from figurative images to abstraction, now the materials changed from purchased industrial steel to junk materials. In Minneapolis, just near his studio, Klippel found a junk shop and to his joy discovered discarded typewriters whose delicate, intricate parts virtually became his signature for several years. He also became aware of the potential of other discarded or commonplace materials such as children’s plastic toy kits.

No 247 Metal Construction, 1965–69. Brazed and welded steel, found objects, and wood, 198 x 145 x 126 cm.

After another visit to New York, Klippel returned to Australia in 1963 and over the next few years produced some of his most remarkable junk sculpture. No 193 is a delicate tower of intricate parts, while No 198 Metal Construction has a compressed mass of cogs and pulleys that burst forth like a plant in spring sending shoots out to the sun. Between 1965 and 1969 he worked on one of his most ambitious works, No 247 Metal Construction. Not only is it the biggest sculpture of this period, it is also the most complex—an extraordinarily intricate arrangement of delicate parts held together in a very direct, basic composition. A tour de force, it must be seen as one of the greatest works produced in Australia. In time it may be recognized as one of the important sculptures of the 20th century. The Sydney art critic Laurie Thomas praised the work in The Australian when it was first shown at Bonython Gallery in early 1969: “It is not only Klippel’s personal masterpiece but one of the timeless works of art to come out of the present day. It owes its materials exclusively to the present—machine-made parts and parts of machines—and the techniques of its construction match the materials. That is to say there is no way at all that this sculpture could have been made at any other time.”5 As in his other junk sculptures of this period, Klippel achieved his underlying aim to bring about a fusion of organic and mechanical forms—the whole work grows as naturally as a plant, yet it is entirely constructed of discarded machine parts. Reaching upward and outward, the branches are subtly balanced with their roots firmly in the ground. In another work, No 329 (1977), the artist actually suggests the landscape, shows the growth beneath the surface, and then lets nature burst forth with tree-like forms, tall and straight.

Klippel always had the ability to work on several projects at once, so that at any one time ideas may be explored as sculpture, drawing, collage or lithograph. For instance, a theme parallel to his sculpture appears in the lithograph Structures in a Landscape (1965), in which three forms, like deciduous trees in winter, stand stark against the sky. Klippel also used this black and white lithograph as the starting point for a series of collages that spread over the years 1965–69. Collage, incorporating meticulously cut-up catalogues of machine parts, was a technique much favored by the artist—Untitled, Machine collage (1983) shows a section through the earth, filled with a swirling mass of forms whose latent energy magically metamorphoses into sculptural structures above ground.

One of the most astonishing of Klippel’s collages is Philadelphia, a black and white photomontage produced during 1978–79 using enlarged photographs of machinery details originally from catalogues of industrial equipment. It is impressive not for its huge scale, but also for its meticulous craftsmanship and the convincing strength of the dramatic composition. Whereas a geological section through the earth would show the strata of rocks, Klippel reveals the immense power of our industrial age, machines emerging, occupying, and overwhelming the earth. The artist may have had the expressed wish to harmonize the forces of nature and industry, but in Philadelphia the machine supplants nature. It is a world devoid of human beings, with no signs of habitation, not even a suggestion of productive labor or a hint of the good life in an age of consumerism. Klippel, however, makes no judgments of our industrial society; he doesn’t push a political line of social criticism and he seems unaware of threats to the environment.

Possibly the only exception to this observation is a very late work, No 981 Diorama, partly a new construction from 2001 and partly a recycling of previous sculptures from as early as 1968. Here the earth is torn asunder and the objects that grow from the soil lean and bend, some appear to topple. It is one of the few works by Klippel that has a pessimistic feeling, for generally speaking the organic sense of growth that characterizes his work imparts a sense of optimism. Unlike the Italian Futurists he doesn’t glorify speed and the energy of the machine age, rather he removes the machine from its function and place in society and uses its parts as purely abstract shapes and forms.

Klippel uses color in the same entirely abstract manner. Sometimes he may put a pale wash of gray-blue in the sky or green-gray on the landscape, but mainly color has its own independent existence. Just as his sculptural materials and techniques are of the 20th century, so too is his use of color—he uses the synthetic colors of contemporary dyes, not the black of charcoal, ochres from the earth, or dyes from plants. His colors are just as much of the present as his machine parts. The components of his delightful No 363, Ninety three constructions of coloured paper are set out in ordered rows on a specially built table. Each of the objects is frontal and remarkably small, yet the general impression is of joyous, vibrant color. The piece reveals Klippel’s ability to work on a very small scale and his persistence in following an idea relentlessly, even obsessively. The sheer repetition of 93 small shapes could have resulted in a failed exercise in design, but Klippel demonstrates his vital creativity: the spectator is captivated by the colorful exuberance.

Fifteen years later, in 1995, he produced another group of works on a very small scale, Nos 1037—1126, 87 polychromed tin sculptures, some painted by the artist and others painted by his friend and fellow sculptor, Rosemary Madigan. These adventurous little doodles, light-hearted explorations of sculptural ideas, were used on the brightly colored cover of the catalogue of the exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales—there couldn’t have been a better way to highlight his phenomenal creativity and his endless flow of ideas.

Klippel’s work varied from the profound and awe inspiring to the whimsical and playful. From an early stage he was fascinated by children’s plastic toys, including model kits and the small surprises found in cereal boxes. No 228 Plastic Construction (1967) was built from a variety of plastic parts carefully assembled before being cast in bronze. Here, the plastic bits and pieces lose their identity, but the whole structure retains the fragility and carefree character of a child’s ephemeral construction. No 853, from about the same time, seems to be a collection of toy trumpets, suggesting the joyous noise of a children’s birthday party.

Another work of a totally different scale is No 800 (1989), a wood assemblage stretching 140 cm. long, in which the basic structure takes the form of a children’s slide. Forms clamber up the steep incline of the ladder and then tumble headlong down the long diagonal. It has all the casual chaos of children at play, yet the simple underlying composition holds all the elements together. This is one of over 150 assemblages that Klippel built in the eight years from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s—his last great works. They originated as far back as 1964 when sculptor/painter Colin Lancely found a vast cache of abandoned wooden patterns in a disused foundry. He immediately used some in his own work, but Klippel placed his selection in storage. In early 1980, the director of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, tried to encourage Klippel to produce a very large outdoor piece for the museum’s collection; for various reasons the project was abandoned, but during the discussions the artist remembered the almost forgotten foundry patterns. A year later he assembled eight structures, which were cast in bronze and then imaginatively set in a secluded pool of water framed by Australian casurina trees in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery. The relationship of the vertical sculptures, the soft foliage of the trees, and the sheet of water was ideal, and the scale was right.

Once Klippel started assembling these patterns, which consisted of a wonderfully diverse range of forms—the pace of experimentation gathered momentum. He established a large additional workshop in Roselle, a Sydney suburb, and employed several assistants to help with the often awkward and arduous manipulation of the forms. He still continued to rely on spontaneous, intuitive procedures for working, but the sheer difficulty of screwing, nailing, and waiting for glue to set with large and sometimes heavy patterns meant that he couldn’t simply proceed with one sculpture—he sometimes was working on 10 or 12 at a time. It was intuition tempered by reflection. Nevertheless, he achieved an informal and casual composition of the forms and also used the distinctive original colors of the patterns (black, gray, red, yellow, and orange) to great effect. A work such as 706 The Beacon (1988) has a very strong presence, towering above the spectator, the smaller colored forms encased within the black structure, capped with a directional triangular shape. While The Beacon is frontal and has a simple direct composition, other constructions such as No 714 Wooden prototype for the Adelaide Plaza have a more complex arrangement. A series of verticals of varying heights give stability, while other shapes such as circles and diagonal straight lines cut across the basic structure and, along with the almost random color of the patterns, establish a lively and unexpected arrangement.

The final work for Adelaide, cast in bronze and placed in an outdoor setting, is somewhat dwarfed by the surrounding environment, and one’s view is distracted by stairways and unnecessary patterns on the pavement. Klippel was at his best on a small to moderate scale, with sculptures suitable for domestic setting—even his biggest assemblages of the wooden patterns are best seen as indoor gallery pieces. Casting the unique wooden sculptures in bronze gave permanency, allowed the works to be located outside, and also enabled the artist to cast in editions—a valuable and continuing source of income. For an artist who had always used color in his three- and two-dimensional work, it was strange that Klippel allowed the foundry to patinate all his bronzes in a uniform dark brown, never exploring the possibilities of blue, black, green, or yellow. In bronze, the works become commanding silhouettes, but the original wooden patterns have far greater visual excitement.

There is a great diversity of composition among Klippel’s final works. Some, such as No 651, are similar to his earlier studies of sculpture in the landscape, with a horizontal suggestion of the horizon and a vertical accent like the growth of trees. Others, such as No 712 The train, are casually constructed of 30 or more patterns strung together in an irregular line, while No 716 is a collection of parts within box-like containers. Unlike many artists who become repetitious with age, Klippel continued to experiment and surprise until the end of his career. Late in his life he showed that he was willing to take risks, deliberately seeking a freer and more adventurous composition by making collages of roughly torn paper or unexpectedly combining collage with bold brushstrokes of polymer paint. To increase the element of chance and unpredictability he had other people randomly paint the already colorful patterns, then he found ways of assembling them.

Klippel’s exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales undoubtedly met international standards and could have been shown in any major museum, yet once again Australia’s comparative isolation, the difficulties and the cost of transport, has meant that this superb exhibition was only shown at one location. James Gleeson, the artist’s friend since their early days together in London, published an extremely well-researched book on Klippel in 1983, and this, along with Deborah Edward’s excellently written and copiously illustrated exhibition catalogue, allows Klippel’s work to be seen overseas. Hopefully this significant artist will eventually be better known outside the limits of his own country.

While typing this article, I found myself comparing Klippel’s work with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Both of these artists made order out of the chaos around us, an order to which we can relate, an order that implies a structure, even a purpose, to life. In spite of the high regard that we now have for Bach’s music, it is interesting to note that he wasn’t an innovator. In fact, his sons considered his compositions old fashioned and outmoded. His undoubted claim to fame is based on his ability to use the musical forms of his day and bring them to a sublime peak of expressive refinement. In this respect, there is a parallel with Robert Klippel. Unlike Braque and Picasso who introduced the world to Cubism or Duchamp who made the readymade into art, Klippel didn’t invent new techniques or new ways of seeing the world. He wasn’t the first to use junk and the discarded materials of the 20th century, he wasn’t the first to use collage or assemblage as a method of working, but he did produce sculptures and collages of an extraordinary level of refinement. And he had an apparently endless flow of creative ideas and an impeccable, intuitive sense of order. Bach’s music was almost ignored for over 100 years. I hope the works of Robert Klippel don’t suffer the same fate.

1 Interview with Deborah Edwards, March 14, 2000.
2 Robert Klippel, Sculpture notes, notebook 1945–50.
3 Ibid.
4 Klippel began to number rather than name his sculptures.
5 Laurie Thomas, “Cogs and slats in a timeless Klippel” The Australian, February 18, 1969.