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Her Light Materials: Penelope Seidler

For Artist Profile 56, 2021, Anna Johnson spoke with arts leader, collector, and forward-thinker Penelope Seidler at her home. Here, she found the lovingly-worked materials – cotton thread, calico – comprising the work at the heart of Seidler's own artistic practice.

Penelope Seidler has a powerful public presence. Hers is what millennials would define as a “big life.” Involved and curious, she makes her way from undergrad openings in Sydney to the bold face events in Europe and the Museum of Modern Art in New York where she has been a member of the International Council since 1973. An adventurous art collector and forward thinker, she has made bequests to the University of Sydney and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and in 2011 was awarded a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur of France. Her name is tightly bound to modernist architecture through both her own practice and her creative partnership with Harry Seidler. Less known, it seems, is her personal and highly unpredictable relationship to art.  

“I suppose,” she reflects, “that my childhood was quite radical in regards to culture. I was surrounded by strong arguments about painting. My father championed William Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith in the depths of deepest Archibald controversy and my uncle Dr. H.V. Evatt collected Léger and Modigliani in the 40s. He and his wife were committed to modern art and they bought the artists who were not then in our public collections, not even considered.”

As a teenager, Penelope Evatt’s first impulse was not to study architecture at all: “I wanted to study art but,” she explains “it was a drop-out subject and didn’t count for matriculation. It’s probably the reason than many people from my generation lack a focus on contemporary art. When I switched to architecture Lloyd Rees was my teacher, it was magical. I regard his lectures about the European masters as one of the best things I ever encountered. When I met Harry in 1957, he knew abstract art from Gropius right through to his work with Joseph Albers at Black Mountain College and I learnt a deeper sense of context and meaning to artists in society. For Harry, the role of art went back to the palaces and churches of the Renaissance. The art had to be integrated with the architecture, it wasn’t just an add on.”

Unlike many collectors, the Seidlers forged personal friendships with artists, and the bond with Josef and Anni Albers was strong. “We visited them in Connecticut many times. Anni was very much in the shadow of Josef but she was an incredible weaver. The Bauhaus was hard on [including] women and I think she took up textiles just to find her place.” “I felt,” Anni Albers once wrote, “that the limitations and discipline of the craft gave me this kind of railing.”   

Weaving with newspaper, hair and asbestos, it is now widely recognised that Albers was a forerunner. Perhaps on some very subtle level she elevated the métier to those around her. In 1980, Penelope Seidler took up the needle for herself. 

This very private work is the obverse of the collaboration she is best known for: ‘The Killara House’ that was conceived and designed by both husband and wife. Described by Penelope as “a team effort,” in many subtle details and brave strokes this building endures as her opus. The house and its contents are unchanged for fifty-three years and its chatelaine is intimate with every corner, shadow and line. Slung across the concrete balconies and floors of her home are rugs and tapestries and on the quiet balcony she stitches.

“I have a strong artistic bent, but I don’t feel I could have forged the architecture on my own. The work that is mine evolved over time and it’s not widely known, it’s the needlework.”

 From the start the cross-stitch embroidery was made solely for herself. These private projects cleaved her away from a life of collaboration. They possess a magnetic aura of concentration and tenderness. 

“I started out doing them from kits and Harry said, don’t waste your time. He said; why don’t you do buildings? He adored me working on them, he thought it was very alluring, perhaps a bit like Penelope working on the shroud of Laertes while waiting for Odysseus. I spend quite a bit of time unpicking, as my name implies!”

Woven into each stitch is a story. A major needlework of Blues Point Tower was six months in when it was left in a Paris hotel room. “The next one was better!” The dry wit engaged to describe the history of her work belies their intensity and conceptual rigour. To create each piece an entire grid must be mapped on the fragile weave of Ecru linen with every stitch accounted for. On the surface the materials she employs seem humble, yet their core material is the ultimate luxury: time. Each piece takes months and so far, her core subject matter has been her husband’s work: the mural at the 1948 Rose Seidler House, the 2000 Berman House at Joadja plans, the Sol LeWitt artwork, 1999, at the 1997 Horizon Apartments and most spectacularly Blues Point Tower, 1962. These are more than gestures of simple homage or passive replication. Her choice of this subject honed from the original drawings, is pointed.

“I think I did that in answer to a building much maligned. In my work it can be seen from different sides and in detail. I partly did that because everybody has been so rude about that building!”

The intricate detail of this piece bears the perfectionism of a lithograph or an etching and yet, on close examination, the straight lines waver and the thrust of the structure takes on a vulnerability. The interlocking balconies of the tower, designed with the egalitarian principle that every resident could share views of the harbour, blink like eyes wrought in tiny stitches. It is a knowing work. And Seidler is sharply aware of the medium delivering the message. The “craft” is apparently unassuming, yet threads together a loose gathering of Australian artists attuned to the quiet tension of the stitch. Narelle Jubelin is a friend of Penelope’s who she says, “eggs her on.” The subversive tension of Jubelin’s work cuts a ragged seam between facile ornament and social commentary. In younger artists such as Teelah George, thread work is sensual, an attenuated and tactile branch of painting. Adrienne Doig made a portrait of Harry and Penelope in silk thread with long stitch, an elegy of sorts to patience. This is not a medium anyone can just pick up and run with. The paradox of embroidery and thread work dwells in its difficulty; the gestures are slow, the fruit terribly hard won, the antithesis of gestural painting. 

If photography captures a single moment in time, needlework distils months in a singular object. Its indelible image is both Medieval and Victorian.  Ironically it was called “busy work.” Yet what we associate with the repression and servitude of female time, finds release in the acutely self-aware frame of contemporary art.

In Seidler’s hands the process is a meditative slow burn. “It’s hard I tell you. It’s a challenge.”  Her newest piece depicts the home of Mr. and Mrs. Rose, (a house that neighbours that of Rose Seidler) and she says it’s a tough one. Like Brunelleschi’s dome, the structure of the whole relies utterly on the parts. A single tiny stitch out of place implodes months of work. “I am mathematical and geometry is a big part of my character. And the process is absorbing I enjoy how long it takes. My next ones will be bigger and perhaps take up to six months.” So far most of the textiles have hinged on Harry Seidler’s architecture. It’s a source she never tires of yet other ideas are beckoning. Could the abstract art in their collection spark a tangent? 

Framing the balcony where she works, the sculptural eaves form hard shadows in the afternoon light and a kookaburra swoops past the potted geraniums. Her next piece is undecided. Springing from a curious mind and a lineage steeped in ambition and risk, you can rest assured that it will not be birds or flowers.

This essay originally appeared in Artist Profile 56, 2021.

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