Material and form were everything to the Australian artist Robert Klippel; whether he was carving in wood, creating assemblages out of metal or creating dizzyingly intricate collages, he tapped into an alphabet, or visual grammar, of his own devising.
“His ‘language of forms’ looks at natural history and science to understand how things are put together,” says Kirsty Grant, curator of Assembled, The Art of Robert Klippel, a major survey show of the artist at Tarrawarra Museum of Art in Victoria’s Yarra Valley.
The Australian Modernist artist was feted by the French surrealists in the 1940s, and a decade later was part of The Club: a debating and drinking circle in New York that included the US art legends Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
In 1964 the late art critic Robert Hughes described him as one of the “purest and most articulate abstract artist yet to work in Australia”, yet Klippel – despite being widely collected and in many major public art collections – never became a household name.
He died in 2001 aged 81; Grant hopes this comprehensive exploration will introduce him to a new generation.
Sculptors often tread a harder path compared with painters, says Michael Brand, director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which has lent several major pieces to this exhibition. Part of the problem was the incomprehension about abstraction – and a general parochialism.
“He was thinking and working internationally; his work wasn’t about Australia … and abstract art has always been a challenge with a broader public compared to figurative work,” he explains.
Klippel is best known for his intricately balanced assemblages; gravity-defying, interlocking forms made from materials he found in junkyards. The rods, wheels and cogs are symbols of a time before mass-produced micro-circuitry, an era of clockwork and levers.
As a viewer, there’s an archaeological fascination in identifying the elements of a typewriter, or mechanical cash register, two of many machines that make it into Klippel’s works. But doing so would have made no sense to the artist. The original function of the parts of a piece was totally irrelevant.
Although he once observed that he was trying to find the relationship between the cog and the bud, Klippel’s work wasn’t “about” anything. The hundreds of small parts he used were just shapes, he’d explain, and the relationships between those shapes was where he found the delight.
Grant confirms this. “For him, it gets back to a fundamental art of making, and the making of art. He never said his art was about anything – but if it was, it was about craft and process,” she says.
This craft and process consumed Klippel’s life. The family home in Sydney’s Birchgrove became a warren of studios, each room dedicated to different materials or art processes. The areas dedicated to eating, sleeping and socialising grew smaller and smaller.
His son, the composer and music producer Andrew Klippel – who has also lent works to the show – says Klippel was a kind and inspiring father, but a lousy person to share a house with. Eventually, he and his mother, Cynthia Byrne, moved out.
“He would see beauty in the house decaying and didn’t want repairs,” Andrew explains. “And he was allergic to it being cleaned, or being in any way bourgeois … he thought that hideous … and Mum wanted a nice place.”
Klippel, who was fascinated by natural history and micro-organisms as much as he was by art, studied sculpture in Sydney before heading to London in 1947. There he met and became lifelong friends with the Australian surrealist painter James Gleeson.
Klippel’s tight, sinuous woodcarvings excited the interest of André Breton, the father of French surrealism but, although he lived and exhibited in Paris, he only briefly flirted with the group, despite a shared interest in the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated objects, symbols and images.
In his mid-20s, he wrote that “sculpture must be revolutionised without the figure”. This remained a guiding philosophy throughout his early travels and later years teaching and exhibiting in the US in the 50s and 60s.
“He was responding in part to an increasingly secular society in which he lived,” says Grant, “and his own need to create art that had relevance and meaning.”
Klippel began his junkyard sculptures in 1961 and in the 80s started making large sculptures using the wooden pattern parts for machinery. These monumental later works are also part of the exhibition.
So does Klippel’s artistic reputation still have resonance 18 years after his death? Grant says his stature “still looms large”.
“He was a pure artist, driven to experiment and to create,” she says. “He didn’t imitate anyone and he hit upon something that still speaks to us in the 21st century.”
• Assembled: The Art of Robert Klippel is open at Tarrawarra Museum of Art until February 16th 2020